Communicating with the C-Suite

June 8, 2021


Effective communication is a crucial skill. It’s even more crucial when you are communicating with the CEO and other C-suite leaders who may require information you have to make critical decisions. With their diverse responsibilities and tight schedules (just like EAs!), the C-suite wants to get the most out of every exchange within the shortest time.

Communicating effectively and confidently will leave an indelible impression on executives, and that may open you up to more opportunities for growth and advancement. Added bonus? You avoid misinformation and confusion while promoting productivity.

Here are some ideas to help you up your game and communicate better with the C-suite:

1. Know Your Audience

Know who you are communicating with, their preferred style of communication, and tailor your message and delivery accordingly. While some execs are very formal, others like to keep things casual. While others like details, some executives prefer overviews.

It falls upon you to do your homework. Watch how they communicate with others in the organization and ask those who frequently interact with them to get a sense of their preferred communication style. The executive’s previous admin will undoubtedly have some helpful insights. You may also find out that an executive’s style of communication may vary depending on the situation, and should factor in this when tailoring your delivery.

2. Know Your Stuff

Effective communication is as much about what you communicate as it is about how you do it. Demonstrate your knowledge and expertise with every word you speak. While at it, stick to the facts and don’t get into your personal thoughts and opinions unless you were explicitly asked to share them.

Problem solving is a core function of leadership. Position your dialogue this way, and you will have their undivided attention. C-level executives want to hear about solutions. Do your best to ensure you clinch your discussion with actionable steps, or feasible recommendations for tackling challenges. Do your due diligence to avoid proposing half-baked solutions.

3. Know the Time and Place

Your exchanges with senior executives will not always be limited to boardroom meetings and presentations. And even if you don’t support one directly, you may get an opportunity to interact with them through your team, your boss, at the company picnic, or the end-of-year celebration. Whatever the case, you want to make sure your exchange is within context (relevant to the setting or environment).

Shooting random ideas out, however good they may be, at the company picnic probably isn’t a good idea but building a relationship and notoriety is. You always want to pitch ideas when people can give them the attention they deserve.

4. Give Context

On any given day, the CEO and leadership team participate in several meetings and share exchanges on different subjects with different people. They engage in context switching several times a day.

It helps a lot if you can ground your conversation first, instead of just jumping right into a discussion. Start by giving an outline of the reason for the discussion, and briefly highlight what you will be covering before launching into the discussion. This mental preparation will encourage your audience to be active participants in the discussion and reduce anxiety about how long you may take.

5. Get Right to It

C-suite executives don’t need a review of data and facts they know and understand as a baseline. It is a waste of time, and one of the sure ways to lose the attention of your audience fast. They want you to skip through the familiar and get right to the specific “need-to-knows.”

C-suite executives are almost always time-strapped, and your time may be cut short. The last thing you want to have to do is rush through the rest of your message because you wasted precious time at the beginning of your presentation or meeting.

6. Keep It Short and Simple

Using simple language is a win through and through. While using industry-specific jargon when communicating with the C-suite may demonstrate your understanding of a particular subject, sticking to simple language is better for everyone. Do keep in mind that, in a meeting of several C-level executives, their grasp of the jargon may vary, and using straightforward language will ensure everyone’s on the same page..

Leaders always appreciate brevity. Go over what you need to communicate and trim it down to the most critical points. Get right to the point, and don’t hesitate to give a yes/no response where such a response is required.

7. Be an Active Listener

Give executives your undivided attention when they speak. You need to really listen, not just hear what is being said. Be present, maintain eye contact, and do not interrupt. You also want to listen with your body, maintaining an attentive posture, nodding, and gesturing accordingly.

Listen with more than just your ears. Be sure to pick on non-verbal cues. They may not tell you that you need to hurry things along or that they are bored, but as an active listener, you can correctly interpret their checking their watch to mean that.

8. Be Prepared for the Drill Down

Don’t expect executives to take anything you say at face value. In addition to incorporating hard facts into your message, you must be ready to answer any questions that arise.

Think like the C-suite and anticipate the kind of questions you will more than likely get. Ensure that having questions thrown at you doesn’t throw you off your game and that you can seamlessly pick up from where you were before. Back your answers with facts, and respond with confidence, and you can be sure you will inspire confidence among the executives, and they’ll gladly pay attention to what else you have to say.

9. Practice to Perfection

Practice does make perfect; you can never go wrong with practicing what you intend on communicating. Practice on your own before a mirror or with someone else, as you are most comfortable.

Practicing what you will say will help you ease the jitters and increase your confidence. Leaders pick up on this confidence, or lack thereof, and in some ways, the vibe you give off will influence how they respond to you. Again, practicing will help you identify redundancies that you will need to get rid of in order to stick to the time afforded to you.

10. Be Yourself

Posturing yourself to be what you think C-level executives may find impressive will almost certainly work against you. Sincerity and being your authentic self helps establish trust, which is fundamental to having any meaningful communication. Changing the way you speak, only to revert to how you usually do mid-conversation, will only make you come across as insincere or frantic. That alone may be enough for people to mentally check out and not want to pay you attention.

Just as with any other skill worth having, it will take time to improve and perfect communicating with C-suite executives. Be prepared, be confident, and most importantly, display the highest level of professionalism every time you communicate with them, regardless of the context.

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