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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

6 Rules for Communicating With Executives

executives talking

The first time I made a presentation to an executive team, I quickly realized it wasn’t business as usual. There was a different energy in the room. It was intense, efficient, and expectant. No one had to tell me there was no time to waste; it was obvious. I knew it was an important opportunity, but at the time, I didn’t realize how unprepared I was for it.

Thankfully, it went well—but I realized that working with executives isn’t exactly your typical meeting.

As you grow in your career and are offered more opportunities, you’ll likely have the chance to interact with those higher-ups, too. When you do, you’ll notice that they operate a bit differently. They read situations more quickly, get to the meanings behind the message, and have an uncanny ability to decipher numbers and recall information in a remarkable way.

So if you want to be upwardly mobile (read: get promoted), you’ll need to understand how to be seen and heard by those senior-level managers most effectively. Start with these six tips for communicating with executives so you can start preparing for that higher-level interaction.

1. They Fly at a Different Altitude

To have the most meaningful conversations, you have to understand your audience.

Executives see across the whole organization (or industry) and connect the dots from top to bottom. So to connect most effectively with them, you need to understand how your subject of conversation fits into their worldview.

To practice this, take a complex customer you’re working with and practice presenting an update on your work with them. You’re deeply involved in the day-to-day detail of what the customer needs, if the shipment went out on time or a day late, and the challenging personalities of the client.

But when you’re speaking to an executive, you shouldn’t focus on the day-to-day tribulations of account management. Instead, you’ll want to talk about the total revenue they generate, the margin contribution, and your strategy to grow their business. Ask yourself, “What does the CEO want to know about this account?” and develop your material from there.

2. They Get to the Point

Senior-level managers know how to quickly dive into an agenda item, dissect it, and ask scathingly good, on-point questions to evaluate it.

And so, they may not need you to ramp up to the point of conversation by giving them all the background data you’ve prepared. They’ll drive the presentation; if they have questions or need more background information, they’ll ask. Have your agenda prepared, of course, but be ready to flex the conversation accordingly.

On that note, anticipate the questions they might ask and prepare responses. One of the biggest gaffes I see in executive conversations is failing to answer questions adequately. If you’re not sure what they want, ask clarifying questions (e.g. “So what you want to know is how I plan to fund the project?”) so you don’t waste time providing the wrong information.

3. They Want to Know You Believe in What You’re Saying

Conviction about what you say to an executive is just as important as the message itself. I was halfway through my first real executive meeting when I realized it was only partly about my proposal—and a lot about how I owned my proposal. The senior-level team wanted to know I had a proposal I would go to the wall for. Because if they’re going to go out on a limb to back it, they want to be sure I’m not going to fold.

I had one manager who struggled with this. We’d send him in to an executive meeting with program proposals and this caveat: “Whatever you do, don’t blink.” One time, he blinked. And it took us months to recover from the fallout of not getting the approvals we needed.

To make an impact on executives, you must truly believe in what you are saying and have conviction that it’s the right solution for the organization.

4. If There’s a Flaw in Your Logic, Numbers, or Content, They Will Find It

And they will point it out to you.

When you’re working with numbers—and you will always be working with numbers when executives are involved—know your data and logic inside and out.

While you’re preparing, have someone with content expertise review, poke, prod, and test your content—and you—ahead of time. This will help get you ready to dig deeper than what’s on each PowerPoint slide.

Don’t risk destroying your credibility with bad numbers, or worse, guessing. If you aren’t sure about a number or an answer to a question, say you’ll look into it and come back.

5. They Can Smell BS a Mile Away

If you think about everything that executives are responsible for (like running an entire company), you can imagine that they have finely honed sensors that allow them to work quickly and focus only on what’s most important. And they can’t possibly do that by letting others waste their time with nonsensical issues or jargon like “paradigm shifts,” “open kimonos,” and “eating your own dog food.”

So, don’t do it. And if you choose to do it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

6. They’re Impatient, and They May Be Abrupt—Don’t Expect a Group Hug When You Leave

If you’re presenting something, don’t expect flowery kudos and high fives when you’re done. They’ll be moving on to their next agenda item while you’re gathering up your stuff. This doesn’t mean they hated your ideas, though. Remember that efficient atmosphere I talked about earlier: They have a lot going on and a lot on their shoulders. Your victory dance will come when you get to implement the proposal they’ve accepted.

(And when it happens, dance away. You deserve it.)

Freaked out? Don’t be. You can do this. It’s a matter of developing the mindset and doing the footwork. (Another great tip? Executives have assistants who know exactly how to work best with them. Ask one for some insight on how that executive works, and what he expects to see in presentations.) The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll be. And, it’ll make you better at everything else you do.