7 Tips for Better Executive Communication

Joe Fletcher
9 min readAug 2, 2019

February 2021 Update — For those interested, I started a newsletter on Substack and covered this topic in a summary manner.

This is a series of communication tips, methods, and tools pulled together from multiple sessions on executive communication coaching. While every company has a varied set of communication styles based on its own culture, these can be treated as a general starting point for improving your executive communication style.

This document is organized into 7 sections

  1. Amazon writing tips
  2. Email — Write shorter emails with clearer information
  3. Team Status Reports — keep clients and organizations up to date
  4. Presentations — deliver clear messaging for the value you provided a client
  5. Conversation styles — Engage in conversations to collect information
  6. Avoiding Vagueness — Clarity of communication
  7. Re-routing questions — controlling conversations and narratives

1. AMAZON WRITING TIPS

This initial section is pulled from an Amazon Writing Tips image circulating on Linkedin. I don’t know the original source. While much of this is captured in sections 2–7, this summarizes key points nicely.

Use less than 30 words per sentence

  • Due to the fact that → Because
  • Totally lacked the ability to → could not

Replace adjectives with data

  • We made performance much faster → We reduced service side tp90 latency from 10ms to 1ms

Eliminate weasel words

  • Nearly all customers → 87% of Prime members
  • Significantly better → +25 basis points

Does your writing pass the “so what” test? As in, “So what? Why do we care?”

If you get a question, reply with one of these four Amazon answers

  • Yes
  • No
  • A number
  • I don’t know (and steps to follow up)

2. EMAIL COMMUNICATIONS

Always triage information when writing emails. When writing critical emails, write them in long form first, then place into the format below. Remove any emotion from your writing and focus on facts.

Provide information in the following format:

  1. Must know — Keep this to one or two sentences / bullets. This is the most critical information.
  2. Need to know — These should be prioritized in order of P1, P2, and P3. Then remove P3.
  3. Would like to know — Once you write this down, remove it. Don’t include anything in this area. Instead write “There are lower priority topics we can discuss if you like”. For non-execs you might include some of this, but in general it’s it’s not critical, it can probably wait.

When Writing emails, you can organize the information above into this format. Again, this is one style. As long as the information is organized, it can be in a variety of styles.

  • First Paragraph — no more than 2 sentences. This would be the headline and critical information
  • Second paragraph — 3–7 bullets. The more bullets, the lower line length. Aim to not wrap sentences.
  • Third (final) paragraph — no more than 2–3 sentences focused on the action needed, follow up, and timelines.

3. EMAIL STATUS REPORTS

These may take many forms, from informing a team or organization, to informing a few critical stakeholders. For non-execs, status reports can be a bit longer to showcase details where needed. They may also include images if relevant.

Executive summary

  • 3–5 bullets organized in priority order of the most critical information
  • Place bullets in priority order
  • If one is a risk, show clear mitigation

Overall status

  • Tie into key initiatives — What are the key priorities, what are you doing to deliver on those, and why does it matter?
  • Present what was accomplished or missed
  • Aim for no more than 5 key items. Format can be open depending on recipient.

Overall status is an opportunity to show you’re managing your team or project in a competent way. Also a way to highlight positive moments to show strengths.

  • Highlights — “I’m proud of the team for hitting our milestone 3 days early”
  • Low lights — “We missed our deadline, but expect to hit it within the next two (2) days”

If a deadline was missed, do not make excuses. Focus on actionable outcomes

Risks, blockers, and mitigations

This shows you’re taking a long view and prepared for potential problem situations

  • Ensure risks have clear mitigations with owners and timelines
  • Risks without mitigations should provide a follow up timeline to provide mitigations

What is next

  • The plan for upcoming tasks and actions in the next [week / month / quarter]

4. PRESENTATIONS

As a consultant, your goal is to make your client to look good. Everything you present to the client should be about them, not about you. You are here to solve their objectives.

Within presentations, focus on the Why (challenge) first, then the What (solution). The “Why” is what motivates and persuades.

Within presentations, you have to be half attorney and half consultant. Show you understand the challenge and needs (consultant). Present facts to lay out challenge or direction (attorney). Then how to achieve success in a solution (consultant).

What the presentation is not about [most likely]. Stay away from condescending language.

  • Explaining — “Let’s me explain this to you”
  • Understanding — “You need to understand this is a complex and difficult topic
  • Learning — “Let me teach you how we did this”
  • Awareness

What is it about — ensuring you deliver value through solving client problems.

  • Hitting objectives
  • Helping the company hit its goals
  • Success

Basic Deck Format

For executives, aim to stay under 10 slides. For other client teams, present the number of slides appropriate for their ask.

  • The Challenge — What the client, team, or company is facing (Situation). Why has this happened (Complication). What do we want or need to help them with that they are not doing? This may also be presented as an objective or goal.
  • How we solved the challenge (minimal text — e.g. “There are 3 critical areas defined to address this challenge. Those are…”
  • Don’t address “I/we”. Address how the problems are solved.
  • The Solution — How we are solving their problems (Answer or proposed solution) — e.g. “These are the 3 activities defined to bring on additional customers to your service”
  • Appendix
  • Every detail and data point that may be asked from the initial presentation

Stop presenting the following items
aka put these in the appendix

  • Process — put it in the appendix in case questions on methodology arise. Most likely they don’t care.
  • Industry trends — if you’re presenting to an exec within that industry, they should already know these. It can appear condescending. Provocations can be fine at the right time. Rather than “trends”, show where competitors are winning and how to compete. Share what they should be concerned about.
  • Additional designs
  • “A story” — Stop trying to provide a winding story that showcases how smart your team is, get to the results

Handling next steps

Communications should always focus on solving problems. If you just presented how to solve their challenges, show what happens next to put that into action.

Be ready for these questions, and have answers.

  • “So what?”
  • “What is next?”
  • “What now””
  • “Why do I care?”
  • “This means what for me?”

Provide understanding

Focus on the client being understood and acknowledged. Agreement is less important here. The first priority should be listening and providing the feeling of being heard. If you don’t agree, you can directly or indirectly disagree. For disagreements, using “re-routing” techniques above can be leveraged.

Handling interruptions

During presentations, you may encounter executives, or others who derail conversations. They may talk about orthogonal topics or other stories not relevant to what is being presented. Aim to not interrupt or cut them off, but rather use these two techniques to get back on track.

1. Bridging

Instead of cutting a client off, especially an executive, wait until you find a way to bridge back to your topic, or the topic of the meeting

You mentioned x, which connects back to what we talked about here

2. Time based facts

If this technique fails to work you can move towards a factual based method

We’ve gone through about 50% of the time and only tackled 20% of the material. Do we want to cover the rest quickly? Or what would be most useful?

In this case, you are providing an objective data point without judgement. Then asking how the client wants to use their time.

Avoid condescending language

  • “Let me explain this to you”
  • “What I think you need to understand”
  • “This is a very complex topic, we don’t have time for everything here”

Focus presentations and conversation styles on success

Not: The bike tire is flat

Instead: Let’s patch and pump up the tire, then ride to the store

Unless a topic has a clear failure, avoid coming across negative.

“Not many initiatives have shipped to customer”

To improve the success of initiatives, we can…

Let’s extend the success of initiatives by…

We can enhance team’s success through…

We can upgrade the team’s output by…

To further improve the success…

5. CONVERSATIONS

Within business, consider the objective of conversations to learn and acquire information. If helpful, watch great interviewers on television (YouTube) to better understand the techniques below. There are entire books written on this subject — what is below is meant as a quick reference.

The goal is moving from unknown information to known information. As a good advisor (consultant), aim to first understand before moving to potential ideas or solutions. Your goal is to gradually move between topics to strike gold on understanding their key problems and concerns. Then provide a way you can solve them.

  • Understand what they care about
  • Understand what is important
  • Get clarity on their goals

BASICS (Acronym)

  • Balance — engage in even dialog
  • Association technique — leverage words and phrases from their responses to ask new questions
  • Self Disclosure — provide information about yourself to show openness
  • Interviewing technique — Ask questions related to broad topics their are involved in
  • Curiosity — show interest and enthusiasm in the other person
  • Smile and be friendly

Think through the 5 levels of conversation

  1. Superficial
  2. Fact based communication
  3. Subjective
  4. Feelings
  5. Openness and vulnerability

6. AVOID VAGUENESS IN COMMUNICATION aka Weasel Words

Leverage precision questioning techniques. Ensure clear answers for Who, What, When, Where, Why. Always be clear and concise. This also leads to better executive presence over rambling or offering vague direction.

For example

  • When asked “Why”, start with “Because”
  • When asked “How”, start with “By”

“We have a lot of customers signed up” → Ask: Exactly how many and in what phase of the sales pipeline? → We have 16 customers with contracts and 7 others in a pilot phase. Based on past indicators, we expect 4 to convert into a sale”

“We should revisit that soon” → Who will revisit that and by when → “We should revisit that by Monday or next week. [Name], can you handle that?”

7. RE-ROUTING AND CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE

This is a routine I used for how many executives will handle media questions they don’t want to answer. It allows questions to be re-positioned in a way that allows the person answering to better control the outcome

  1. Situation — This is a statement that everyone can agree on, that’s non-contentious, agreeable, and objective
  2. Complication — What has changed in relationship to the situation. This can be an internal or external factor. Often times external factors work well with clients because it doesn’t place blame on them. Rather blame is assigned to another factor that is beyond their control. However this is now what needs to be solved.
  3. Implied question — The question or statement you want to answer. This leverages the complication to provide a new question.
  4. Answer — provide the answer to the question you just asked.

Example

Q: We’ve seen your revenue growth slow over the last year. As a small design consultancy does that worry you?

A: (S)There has been slowing growth across the design consulting industry within Europe. This is due to a cyclical situation of companies pulling design in house. We know this situation happens in cycles and strong growth will return in due time. (IQ) The key question we need to focus on now, it how we change our delivery of design to better align with what companies want. (A) Right now we do that in two ways — providing more on-site work which matches client teams needs, and working on more flexible retained which allows businesses to address their own ebs and flows.

That’s all for now. Thank you for reading!

Claps are welcomed! We also have more articles on the story of Raft, a small Amsterdam design consultancy.
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