The following is a guest piece by CEO Ben Decker.
Across every business vertical and level, we all tell ourselves little white lies when it comes to communicating: “People tell me I’m pretty good at communicating.” “I don’t need to prep; I can wing it.” “If I say the words, people will get it.”
At the CEO level, these white lies run rampant. After years of working with business leaders, the fact is most CEOs are not inspiring. And oftentimes, they are not even influential.
The good news: All of us can inspire. We just have to tweak our communications approach. Communicating is a learned skill, critical for leadership and motivation – the CEO’s primary task.
Here are the top three mistakes that CEOs make – and how to fix them:
Mistake #1: CEOs read speeches
Consider the annual Academy Awards acceptance speeches. The most memorable speakers of the evening are always those who share straight from the heart.
We think of Lupita Nyong’o’s authenticity in sharing how she took a risk in her career (2014) or Sally Field’s excitement at feeling validated by the academy (1985). What we don’t remember are the speeches that begin and end with a pre-written set of notes. These two types of speeches just feel different; one impacts us and the other doesn’t.
On the one hand, it makes sense to read a speech that someone else writes because we’re all tight on time. As leaders, we think, if it’s scripted, we can just plug and play. However, we don’t come across as effective or authentic if we don’t practice.
And it takes longer to prepare when you are dead-set on getting the wordsmithing right on the speech someone else wrote the speech for you.
I was helping a global software executive prepare for a large industry event, alongside two team members – one from PR and one from marketing. Her team did exactly what they should have done – they prepared her with a message that was interesting and thought provoking.
The problem was that it just wasn’t Elaine’s style. She became frustrated that the script just wasn’t resonating with her. She said, “See, those aren’t my words. It just doesn’t sound right.” When pressed, Elaine continued, “If I was just talking to you, I would say it like this…” I quickly responded, “Great – say that…!”
The Fix: Whether reading from a teleprompter, notes sheet or memorizing the details, don’t get hung up on the specific words, sentence structure and punctuation. It may feel easier and feel safer, but it fails to connect, inspire or motivate. You need structure, not a script.
We teach a method called The Decker Grid SystemTM, and it’s an easy, structured, organized methodology that allows you to put together a presentation quickly.
Alternatively, adapt the outline your team meticulously crafted for you. Change the words and flow to fit your style. Consider letting the slides lead you with two concepts per slide. Another alternative, include four words on your teleprompter to help you know where to go next. No matter what, be sure to put it in your own words to inspire.
Mistake #2: CEOs are too stiff
I used to work with a Fortune 100 company, and their building was 36-stories tall. The joke was, the higher up in the building you go, the more serious the executives are.
We think that to be taken seriously, we have to be serious. We get so stressed, focused on the numbers, busy, and then we wear it on our faces. We must work to buck this serious trend. In fact, this is the #1 area for CEOs to improve. Instead, we need more lightness in business. Think right now of the CEOs that come to mind who you like or would want to get to know. Chances are, there is a lightness about them.
Too many people lose all their natural and expressive energy when it counts most – when they are speaking to hundreds or thousands at once. They emphasize their content, thinking, “If I just say the right words, people will get it.” In reality, people pick up on the visual and verbal cues, as well.
The Fix: Find ways to pull out your natural self. For some, that means smiling and showing vulnerability rather than striving to show that over-polished cool with your board and with your teams.
The person you are at a cocktail hour, a backyard barbecue or during a Q+A is more authentic than the version that often appears on stage. Give yourself permission to loosen up and show energy!
Raise the corners of your mouth. Add lightness whenever possible, whether it’s at a meeting, in the hallway or on stage. The way we identify natural lightness is on video – so whenever you can – get a video of yourself so that you can see the way you come across to your audience.
Mistake #3: CEOs are not always communicating vision
The primary job of any leader is to continuously communicate vision, mission, goal, and purpose of the organization – whether you are leading a group of 10 or 10,000.
This seems obvious, but as CEOs, we get insulated. We also get distracted. Much like the dog in the movie, Up, who jerks his head whenever he hears the word, “squirrel,” we get caught up with the minutia. It’s easy to forget that our role is to be a vision caster – not to deal with the details (that’s the role of your team).
Too many CEOs think the formal one page Vision Statement that every employee may have to memorize takes care of the whole vision thing. It doesn’t.
The best CEOs live and breathe their vision. They ARE the vision.
I worked with a CEO of a rapidly growing healthcare company who used to regularly stroll through the halls of his company to be visible. I challenged him to raise the bar. Rather than just walking around, he could really communicate his vision of unity by shifting the experience.
If he asked what they were doing, on what they were working – showing interest, showing engagement and showing that every team member’s task (whether big, small, high-level or low-level) had value to contribute to his vision, it would help them understand their part.
The Fix: At every level, you must consider their experience. Your job as the leader is to communicate how their role – whatever it is – fits into the bigger vision. All the time. Relentlessly. Transfer it to all levels of your organization. Inspire your team by connecting the dots about what impact they have, how they contribute to the vision. Challenge each of your direct reports to translate this vision for each of their teams.
The Bottom Line
In today’s attention economy, inspiration isn’t optional. We must do better. Consider how a dose of inspiration would help you motivate your team. What if we could each get just ten percent better with our communication skills? A ten percent revenue increase would sure mean a lot each of our businesses.
If you can have more impact and more influence, you can create more change. And that’s where it really gets exciting. Communications is not a soft skill; it is essential to business success – not to mention, overall life success.
Ben Decker, CEO of Decker Communications and co-author of “Communicate to Influence: How to Inspire Your Audience to Action”, is an expert in consulting, training and messaging for effective business communications.
Some other posts you may enjoy: