Link to podcast episode: EL34: How to Communicate with Confidence in the C-Suite | with Dianna Booher
JESSE LAHEY: Welcome to the show leaders! Well, you’ve made it to the C-Suite because of your expertise but do you have the people skills to be successful with the CEO’s, CFO and other executives? How can you create presence that influences others to perceive you as a strategic thinker, a heaver hitter and adept leader? In short, how do you communicate with confidence in the C-Suite? To help us address those questions, our guest is Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications and the author of 45 books published in 26 Countries and 20 languages with nearly 4 million copies sold. Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Act and Think Like a Leader and the Revised Edition of Communicate with Confidence. Dianna is founder of Booher Consultants, an executive communication training firm. Dianna, welcome to the Engaging Leader.
DIANNA BOOHER: Thank you! It’s great to be with you.
JESSE: In your latest book, Creating Personal Presence, the subtitle is Look, Talk, Think and Act Like a Leader. Are all four of those really necessary for communicating in the C-Suite?
DIANNA: Yes. I think so, if you’re going to be a well rounded leader. Otherwise you present yourself as just an artifact. There’s not really a sustainable influence or a significant part. When you’re playing your role in front of your audience, in front of your group, in front of your team, in front of your organization, they begin to see through the facade if it’s only just look; if it’s only just the talk. There’s got to be the ability to think and act and there also has to be the character to sustain that leadership role.
JESSE: Is executive presence just superficial posturing?
DIANNA: I don’t think so. It’s not just about image. When you talk about presence, a lot of times people think it’s just about dress, appearance, etiquette kind of things. Really it involves your total character, your confidence. It’s really the essence of who you are, how you behave, and the skills that you bring to your role and to your job. Does that match how you look and how you talk? When there’s congruence there, then that’s really the essence of executive presence.
JESSE: That’s interesting the way you phrase that; does it match? I like in your book you talk about presence simply means being fully in the right role; that you come across as I’m in the right role for me and I’m fully present in this moment.
DIANNA: Right. It’s not just putting on an act. It’s really making sure that you are acting with intention. It’s who you are. What you say and do matches what you say in the role that you’re presenting to people. That’s why it’s not just superficial. You’re not just a poser. You really are who you seem to be out in public.
JESSE: It’s not just manipulating others to perceive a certain image. It really is for the good of both you and the others. Early in your book you tell the true story of Kaitlyn and Rachel and I think it makes that point very clear. Can you share that story with us?
DIANNA: Actually it sort of puts me in a bad light of using poor judgment. It really does say how important executive of our personal presence is in any situation. I had a job opening and I had a couple of candidates. My team had narrowed it down to three. The first candidate that I interviewed for the job, Kaitlyn, came in. She presented herself really well. She was dressed in a business suit. She looked confident and comfortable. She shook hands, introduced herself, talked about her history, the skills she brought to the job, made great eye contact. She was very comfortable as I introduced her to several others on the team. She made a good first impression. The other person that I interviewed out of the three was Rachel. She really had the inside job; Rachel did, because she knew someone whose opinion and judgment I really respected. But when she came in, she did not present herself well. She did not look comfortable. She did not speak comfortable. She did not frame her past experience in a very confident, competent way.
When I made the decision, I hired the one who made the strongest first impression. But when Kaitlyn took the job, within 10 days I knew I had made a mistake. She was just not competent. I had to let her go after just a few weeks. I called up the second best and gave her the job. Soon she was able to learn because we had very competent speakers in and out of our office. She was able to learn the easier skills; which was to dress a little bit better, learn to speak a little bit better. The reason I tell that story in creating personal presence is that it tells you how important those first two subsets are; the most observable; how you look and how you speak; because those are the gate keepers. That’s the first impression that people will have and if you don’t do those things right or if you don’t have those things, they can lock you out of many opportunities. Those are the first steps and if you don’t get past the opportunities, people never get to observe the other things about you.
JESSE: So Rachel was not doing herself or you any favors by not communicating the proper presence. It was actually you were missing out on all the great things that she truly offered.
DIANNA: Right. I missed out on her ability to conceptualize the things, her creativity, her ability to think on her feet, the character issues and all the other things she brought to the job because her first two things, the way she presented herself and her speaking patterns and speaking skills, were the most observable part. The subtitle Look, Talk, Think and Act, those first two things are what get’s you in the door, so to speak. It gets you past the gate keepers so people can have longer to observe the more important characteristics.
JESSE: That’s a great story. If the ability to present yourself well matters so much, it’s surprising that so few people do it well. In fact, we’ve all heard employees grumble about having to sit through boring meetings. If you think about it, in referring to boring meetings, they’re talking about their colleagues presenting information. Worse, they’re complaining often about their executives who are kicking off management meetings. Before we get in to some tips, let me ask you this; why are so many CEO’s and other executives lousy speakers?
DIANNA: I think there are several reasons. First of all, let me correct the misconception that all executives are lousy speakers because they are not. Many of them are great. They’re fabulous speakers. That’s the reason they are on the top. They rose to the top because they have excellent communication skills. But there are a fair number of them that are boring. Face it, they’re boring. They got to the top because they are exceptional in their technical skills and they were just promoted up because of their technical skills. But they had someone else who took the out and up front parts for them. In other words, they had support staff to prop them up; who met the public for them; who did the speaking for them; who met people, had the interactions and the encounters where they had to negotiate and build relationships for them. So they never really had to develop those skills. That’s one reason why they remain lousy speakers. When the few opportunities once a year or twice a year when they have to do a all hands on meeting or go to wall street and talk about their earnings, they’re just not that good.
Another reason is they depend on giving out information rather than being persuasive. If I just hit people with the facts, the facts speak for themselves. Of course, facts never speak for themselves. You’ve got to make the facts tell a story. A lot of times, for our presentation class, we’ll go in and talk to an executive and they want us to do classes for them, they’ll say something like would you teach these accounts or would you teach these lawyers or would you teach these engineers to tell a story and not do a data dump? Sometimes CEO’s are still trying to do that. They say look at the results! They need to learn to be persuasive.
I think the third reason is sometimes they just depend on their position or their title of authority to get people to do things and get their engagement and get people on board on new initiatives or goal rather than winning them through their personal authority. Personal authority is really important when you’re trying to work on a peer to peer level; bring on a new supplier or win a new client or a partnership. You’ve got to appeal to people personally rather than just because I said so. It didn’t work with a parent and child relationship very well and it doesn’t work peer to peer either.
JESSE: That’s right. You say that looking like a leader is the least important of these four components but it is the most observable. As you mentioned earlier, it creates a first impression that can make a difference and can last. What are some of the high impact ways that we can increase credibility and influence in our role as an executive by the look or by what others see visibly?
DIANNA: One of the key things is energy. You can see energy. I don’t mean willingness to work long hours. I mean energy in your voice, energy in your body language, energy in the way you stand, energy in your gestures, energy in your facial expression. Have you ever looked at some of the ways that CEO’s and executives look when they stand up at the end of a conference table and speak to a group? Half of the time they’re leaning on their elbows, they’re leaning against the lectern, leaning on one foot. Sometimes during a Q & A session they may lean on one elbow to look casual or offline and that’s fine but when they’re delivering a point and they’re trying to drive home something they feel passionate about, a key goal for the year or initiative, they need to look like they feel passionate about it. They need to have some energy; large gestures, moving their arms from the elbow is a whipping gesture. It looks lackadaisical. they need to use inclusive gestures which are larger gestures from the shoulders; walking purposefully, not ambling, not this little shuffling foot gesture like they’re nervous; a nervous fidget with their foot. All of those are not appropriate. They’re not intentional. They make an executive look weak. Those are some ways that are low impact and to do the reverse of those it would be high impact for an executive.
JESSE: I like in the book you state that your overall goal when creating executive presence is to create the best first impression that you are ready, energized, yet comfortable in your role.
DIANNA: In other words, if you were saying something about we need your input on this, you’d probably, if you were natural and comfortable like you were talking to friends out to dinner on Friday night, you would probably gesture to your friend. Let’s say you had Sally sitting across the table from you; you would reach out and say Sally I want your input. You would reach out to her and say Sally I need your input. But if you’re ill at ease, that gesture doesn’t quite fit. It’s like you’re watching a movie. You’ve seen a movie when the audio is not quite in sync with the picture? It looks a little off. That’s what happens when you see an executive that’s ill at ease. Their gestures look a little artificial. They look like they’re not quite in sync with the words. It’s just stiff.
JESSE: Another tip you mentioned in the book that really rang true for me and has always served me well is realizing that standing tends to create energy and help you be large and in charge. I was first taught that way back when I was just coming out of school and interviewing for my first jobs. The advice was when you’re in the lobby area, don’t sit down. If there is any good reason to be standing up, then when your interviewer comes to get you, be standing up. Be looking at the magazines on the rack or the pictures on the wall.
DIANNA: Right. It’s the ready position. If you played sports, your coach always told you to stand in the ready position, put your weight on the balls of your feet so you could go either way, you can pivot, you can move forward. That’s the exact position you want to be in as you deliver a comment or answer questions from your group or deliver a message.
JESSE: Whether you are and executive; let’s say a new executive; or you are working with executives and you need to have some influence with executives, that posture of standing is very helpful. A lot of non executives feel uncomfortable to stand in front of a group. I recently was in a meeting and there was a younger member of the team who needed to present to the group. She kept presenting while seated. She was putting spreadsheets up on the screen from her laptop and was just talking through the spreadsheet as she was seated there. When I had the opportunity, I pulled her aside and I said standing is the position of influence and power, essentially. If you can stand up, number one you’re actually going to be more clear as you present because you can actually point to the data that you’re talking about but other people will perceive you as having greater authority on any given topic. That doesn’t take any practice. That’s just thinking about would it actually be more appropriate for me to be standing? And to have a little bit of courage to stand up in those moments.
DIANNA: Yes. We talk about that when we do presentation training. We have a sit down time where they do sit down presentations but we make that point often. A sit down presentation doesn’t mean that you have to sit down as the presenter. There are times where you can sit down and then you stand up at certain times; standing up to do the formal parts; sit down for the Q&A; stand up to show a chart; sit back down. So you can sit down and stand up periodically throughout the 20 minutes or 30 minutes that you’re talking in front of the group. But you’re always more powerful and influential when you stand up.
JESSE: What are ways, besides the look, that you can increase your impact with how you think about your message and really grab hold of the message?
DIANNA: There are several additional ways. One of course, when we move in to that third area; we talked about the look, how you talk, how you think and help others retain your message; would be to tell stories. When we tell people about composing your message and how you’re going to shape and structure your message when you talk to a group; whether it’s a two minute update when you step off the elevator or if it’s a 10 minute project report or if it’s an hour long formal presentation. Most people think about, when they tell stories or tell an anecdote or give a case story to a client that it’s going to take a long time. They say something like well I’ve just got 20 minutes. I can’t tell a story. You can tell a story in 20 seconds. I often have a case history of a client in my mind when I’m going to go in to talk to a client or to a group or a formal presentation. I might have a 20 second version of that story, a two minute version of that story, and a four minute version of that story. It just depends on how far back in the history of that case history or case story I want to go. I know what the punch line is and what my key point might be. You can give as much or as little to make the point that you need to make. It might be two lines of dialogue or you might build it up a little bit more. Stories have impact because they hit people emotionally. There are all kinds of research that supports the fact that people remember what you tell them if it hits their emotion as opposed to just appealing to their logic.
Another thing, instead of just throwing in fact, fact, fact, information, if you can think how can I make this clearer with a metaphor or analogy or word play so they remember it and they’re saying it over and over next week? I always tell people if your management team or your project team walks in the next week and they’re still quoting a line from your talk, then you’ve been successful.
JESSE: So one way to think like a leader is when you want to make a point to use a story or a metaphor to help you make that point. I think as long as you are very clear in your mind what the point is so you don’t accidentally tell this wandering story and then get off track; which I’ve seen people do that too; but if you have the one big outcome that you want to come out of the story, your main point, and keep a laser focus on that…
DIANNA: You always want to decide what point do I want to make with this anecdote. When I talk to such and such client in Atlanta last week, what is the key point I want to make with this work we did with that client? Then everything you tell, you choose your details relevant to that key point so that everything is very focused. You don’t want to just tell a 10 minute story to make a nickel point. You need to make sure the point is worth telling and the point is worth making and then drive to that point with appropriate details.
JESSE: You also mentioned one way to talk like a leader is to use metaphor. Do you have an example for practically a leader has done that?
DIANNA: Sure. Steve Jobs gave us a good example when he introduced the iPod and he said a thousand songs in your pocket. He could have given us all the features but he didn’t. He didn’t give us all the features of the iPod. He just said a thousand songs in your pocket. We immediately understood what the reason for having that device was. Why? Go out and buy it. When we started talking about the internet, people had no clue. When you think about way back in the 90’s when we started, what’s the internet? We said well, it’s like a highway. You get on it and you can go anywhere you want. When we first got in to sites and everybody started putting up a website, we said you need a map. Just like you need a map of the city to go somewhere, you need a map of this website. We understood a map to be an analogy. When you describe the eye, we say it’s like a lens for a camera. We’ve used metaphors for an eternity to understand complex, new, concepts.
It’s essential that any time you explain something that’s new to people that you relate it to something they know and understand and is basic to them.
JESSE: You’re right. And if you can pick a metaphor that you know your audience is familiar with and will understand and that’s truly going to be something meaningful to them and is appropriate; it’s not actually going to take them down the wrong path; that actually does save you a lot of words and is going to help you think and talk a lot more clearly.
DIANNA: Yes. People immediately get it and then you can say it’s like this except… and then you start to explain the differences. Politicians do it. Celebrities do it. Textbook writers do it. I don’t care how complex the idea; even movie script writers do it when they describe a new movie. They’ll say this is like The Perfect Storm meets Dumb and Dumber. Immediately you get oh it’s like a terrible natural crisis but everything is funny rather than dramatic.
JESSE: That’s right. And when they were pitching the concept for the movie Speed, they told their funding people at the movie company that it was going to be like Die Hard but on a bus.
DIANNA: Exactly. And people get it. You have to figure out a way to take the complex and simplify it. Another key principal for thinking on your feet and making your message easy to retain: Make your facts tell a story rather than making them unrelated facts. In other words, let’s say you’re giving your boss a report on what happened at the trade show. Let’s say you go to a big trade show or conference and your boss says was it any good? Should we pay for all of our staff to go next year? Rather than starting in an unrelated way; well, this many people attended and I went to the trade show and this is what happened. Maybe we should have a booth and I went to these three hospitality suites. We had some competitors there. You’re sort of all over the place.
You want to start off with an opinion. Yes we should send all of our staff next year or no we shouldn’t. Then as you relay the information about the conference that you experienced, all of it is going to build the story of yes we should go next year and send everyone or no we shouldn’t go next year. All the facts fit in somehow under that storyline of yes we should go or no we shouldn’t. Decide what your story line is. In other words, stick a stake in the ground. Take a stand. Take a point of view and then roll your information out along that story line. It’s not just a data dump when you speak. And so many people do just send out information and they expect the audience or the listener; even if it’s just one listener; to come to the end and say so…….? Your point is?
Often they even leave them in the dark with thinking I didn’t even get your point. What is your point? As a speaker we’re supposed to tell them up front: Here is my point and this is what I want you to think, know, do, believe, buy, consider; and then you take them through the details to get there.
JESSE: That’s a great point. It’s taking a page out of the playbook of journalists. You think of a newspaper and the inverted pyramid approach they take. There’s a headline that grabs you very quickly and you know what the general topic will be in this article and then the very first sentence of the newspaper article tells you the whole point and then you don’t have to guess and as you go deeper in to the article, things are less and less important. It’s this inverted pyramid but your audience isn’t sitting there wondering okay where is he going with this? You always know where the article is going and if any point you get interrupted and you don’t finish the article, you aren’t left hanging. You just don’t have all the details but you know the main point.
DIANNA: Right. You always want to learn to summarize, cut the clip. That is a lost art. If you’re used to sending out Tweets, you’re probably getting better at that. Having to do things in 140 characters is helping a lot of people learn to summarize. But even then people sometimes don’t know how to summarize. They just sent out trivial junk. But that’s an art that you need to know whether you’re writing, whether you’re speaking, whether you’re summarizing meeting notes, whether you’re leaving voicemail. That’s what drives a lot of people crazy at the executive level is to have staff who says oh Mark, just getting back to you. I just got back from a trip blah, blah, blah and they go on two minutes before they get to the point. The whole thing should say here’s the bottom line message and this is what I need from you. Now let me reverse that and give you the details to support what I’ve just asked. They don’t have time for the once upon a time version.
JESSE: It’s worth taking a few seconds before you pick up the phone to make that call to jot down what is your main point and what are the top 1,2 or 3 things you’re going to say to support that point so when you do get the voicemail you’re prepared to sound straightforward and clear.
DIANNA: Yes. I just got a voicemail this afternoon where the person went on. It was a very big business deal and they went on about three minutes. I listened to it three times trying to get the information. I finally just deleted it. It’s ridiculous for someone at an executive level to have to listen to a three minute voicemail from someone who cannot summarize. That’s an essential skill at the executive level. It says you do not think appropriately.
JESSE: That’s interesting. So you might be tempted to brush that off and say that’s just communicating and that’s just talking but what it says is it tells other people how you think. So if you’re a new executive they’re going to think you don’t really belong in the C-Suite or if you are an advisor to the C-Suite or you’re hoping to make it to the C-Suite someday, they’re going to say that person just doesn’t think strategically. They don’t think like a leader so they really don’t belong in the C-Suite.
DIANNA: Right. Your writing and your speaking, when you speak formally, is a reflection of your thought process. If they do not see that skill to summarize, they’re going to see a gap there.
JESSE: The fourth component of personal presence is acting like a leader. You said that’s the part that many people forget about; perhaps because it’s the least observable. But not acting like a leader is what gets many executives and their companies in trouble. It seems like we only see it after everything has gone horribly wrong. What’s included in acting like a leader?
DIANNA: I’m talking here in that fourth part of the book about character issues; acting with intention, integrity; particularly honesty; that’s one of the character traits. Being approachable is another very important trait. People don’t like arrogance. They just don’t. They admire someone who has a touch of humility; not so much so that you feel like you are not competent and you can’t handle things but just a right assessment of yourself. Self effacing humor is always good. People appreciate that. And showing compassion; being concerned about others; showing respect for others no matter their station in life.
I think those four things are some of the top character issues that really count at the executive level.
JESSE: Today we’ve been talking about how communicating with confidence in the C-Suite requires having executive presence. Presence is simply being fully in the right role. As an executive we start by creating the best first impression that we are ready and energized yet comfortable in our role. The four aspects of presence are to look, talk, think and act like a leader.
Dianna thanks for joining us today.
DIANNA: Thank you Jesse. I enjoyed it.
Link to podcast episode: EL34: How to Communicate with Confidence in the C-Suite | with Dianna Booher