How to present as a CEO

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When CEOs stand up and talk, they have the power to lift or lower the mood of their audiences. Too often, they lower it. Sometimes they even alarm or alienate people. This is not, of course, their intention. But it happens when they misunderstand some of the basic ground rules about communication. In this article I’m going to share ten top tips to help the world’s CEOs spread more light, understanding and engagement when they speak inside or outside their organisations.

1) Think about the audience

This sounds obvious, but too many CEOs prepare generic speeches and presentations that they give to many different audiences in many different places. Before writing or assembling a presentation, ask yourself first of all how your audience are likely to receive it. Will it contain information which is new to them? Will they benefit from hearing it? If so, how? Do you want them to do or think something different as a result of hearing you speak? If not, there’s probably no point delivering your presentation.

2) Build a bridge

As the salesmen say, people buy people first. In other words, before accepting your product, advice, information or point of view, they make a judgment, often subconscious, on whether they accept you as the kind of person they listen to – whether they like you, trust you, admit you to their group, find you interesting, funny, authoritative and all the rest. All in the blink of an eye. So start your presentation with something that (a) they can relate to and (b) says something about you. The words you say may be trivial – a joke, a pleasantry, a story, a compliment to the host – but they must signal that you deserve their attention, and that what you are about to say has something in it for them.

3) Keep it simple

The best and most intelligent writing can be understood by primary (elementary) school pupils. Long words, convoluted sentences and jargon only confuse. It is actually harder to write simply, but it repays the effort. And the simpler your language, the more people you will reach. Don’t patronise, but don’t assume too much knowledge of, or interest in, your specialist subject. Avoid subordinate clauses, in-jokes and humour based on language or cultural assumptions.

4) Structure your presentation

Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. Don’t labour this. However, the audience will feel more comfortable if your presentation has a beginning, a middle and an end, and both you and they know where you have got to in the structure. It’s best to schedule questions after the body of your presentation but before the very end. Give a time limit for questions and remain in control. After questions, end on something uplifting.

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Developing and destroying relationships

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In my Communications World Magazine column last month, I promised to tell you about developing and destroying business partner relationships. And so by reading the next few hundred words, you’ll gain 15 tips, techniques and ideas that will help you develop—and not destroy—your business relationships.

Actually, I have just used three of those techniques in the last paragraph. But before I reveal what they are, let’s take a step back and look at relationship building.

Building relationships is at the core of any business partnering activity. You can’t be a business partner without relationships. And yet it is amazing how little thought goes into the analysis of how to build and sustain relationships.

In my opinion, building relationships is about building trust and putting yourself in a position where the partnership is a true two-way affair, not an asymmetrical one. But how do you build and measure trust?

The work of people like management expert David Maister and Shaun O’Callaghan of Quartet Research suggest that trust can be measured and mapped, and that a “trust equation” can be a useful analytical tool to help you understand which of your relationships are working well and which need attention.

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Communicator or engineer – who’d be your best bet on a desert island?

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I’ve always been a little puzzled why we communicators go to great lengths to differentiate ourselves from one another. “I’m a PR professional” or “I’ve always worked in marcomms” or “Digital is the only option for me”. Why do we do this when we have so much in common and share so many practices and capabilities? Rather than focusing on what differentiates us, shouldn’t we be championing what unites us? A love of language and an ability to connect most effectively with a target audience.

It’s not the fault of any individual but of the communications community as a whole. The infinitesimal job titles given to communicators are actually limiting rather than expanding our potential remit. And it’s a large part of what stops communications from being seen as a profession.

Take engineers as an example. They may have different disciplines: mechanical, IT, technical etc. but they all have ‘engineer’ in their job title. And consequently, they are seen as expert, methodical problem solvers. The people you’d want to be stranded with on a desert island as you know they’d have built a shelter or a raft in a matter of days. The Wikipedia definition of an engineer is “a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical, societal and commercial problems.”

But what about communicators? It’s a much broader church and can encompass people who are naturally gifted at speaking and not just communications professionals per se. So wouldn’t it be great if the primary definition of a communicator was something along the lines of: “a professional practitioner, concerned with applying communications skills, theory and creativity to facilitate the most effective exchange and understanding of technical, societal and commercial information.”

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Listening – in one ear and out the other…

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We all listen right?  We listen to Ted talks, we listen to the radio, we listen to our kids, our families and our friends. We listen to the people we work for, the people who work for us. But my question to you is, do we listen in the same way to all of these? Do our ears get bigger depending on how important the topic is for us? Do we HEAR what people are saying when they’re talking, or do we just pick out the bits that suit us?

It’s a complicated set of questions. Because I bet we would all say that most of the time we are really good listeners. That we have empathy and can really respond in a way that shows we’ve been tuned in. but do we? There has been loads of research done that says we pick out the bits we want to hear, the bits that are relevant to us. So when someone tells us something that is happening to them in their lives, we find the bit that is relevant to us. It makes sense right, it means we can relate to it, can understand what they’re saying in the context of ourselves. It is in fact what makes a big contribution to a conversation.

So why talk about listening?

Well, I think that there are many opportunities lost when we don’t really listen to people. I think that wars could be stopped, that religions can live together, that governments and people could realise they want the same things, but from different perspectives. I think that if we were able to listen, really listen, hear and not let our prejudices get in the way, that we might find ourselves living in calmer times, less bloody times, less prejudiced times.

When I look back over the last two decades I can mark very clearly times when listening has been key.

There are trite times, when I was a young and excitable music journalist having to really listen to what artists were saying about in the interviews to try and portray accurately whatever mystical message they were trying to get across. It’s really good training on how to listen when you have to report back what has been said, when you not only have to hear the words, but understand the essence of what people are trying to get across.

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How to become a better communicator through compassionate communication

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Communication is based on stories. Often communication is about MY STORY: what happened to me, what I feel, and what I want. As an expatriate, my approach to communication was indelibly impacted by 8 years working and living in emerging and non-western countries. These are countries where I experienced absolute highs and lows, rare in the comfortable West, forcing me to consider how I really interact with people.

The expatriate experience magnifies what happens in our home country, but we normally can’t see it happening. As a result, I’ve been learning to take my experience and make my communication more compassionate wherever I live.

Compassion comes from the Greek “to love together with”. So Compassionate Communication is about talking alongside someone, rather than talking to them; about entering into their frame mind, rather than trying to get them into mine; about finding ways that we are the same, rather than different. It’s about ANOTHERS’ STORY and less about MY STORY.

Compassionate communication came to me as an expatriate because of:

  • Working alongside others who haven’t had the same education or experience, which helped me show rather than tell. The well-known quote says, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
  • Learning new languages, which helped me see similarities rather than just differences. Goethe writes, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own”.
  • Experiencing new values, which helped me see those which overlap and influence mine. Martin Luther King Jr writes, “All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Compassionate communication is about understanding more than being understood and loving more than being loved.

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