5 Practical Ways to Improve Executive Communications


Everyday, product management and product marketing are barraged with data and information that finds its way into competitive intelligence, innovation, better requirements, insights into the buying process and more.

In his book, Strangers unto Ourselves, Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia shared, “The human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment.The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these.”

With that in mind, How can product management and product marketing improve executive communications?

Before we jump into some practical ways to improve communications, you should view Death by PowerPoint or Why Most Presentations Suck. Then read the Top 10 Reasons Your Presentation Sucks, by Geoffrey James. Why should you view and read these? Because product management and product marketing spend to much time over-engineering presentations and content, and often overlook it’s what they are communicating that’s important.

1. Communications Style
There’s a lot written about communications style and personalities. In his post, One more important thing about presenting…Mitch Joel highlights, “If you need to concentrate on one thing to take your presentations to the next level (once you have hammered home the basics), let it be this: don’t overtly perform. Be natural. Be authentic.” Executives want more than facts. They want evidence delivered with conviction and truth. They desire your expertise, advice and decision-making skills.

In a recent conversation with the president of a technology company, I asked, “What is the number one priority you want for product management? He responded, “I need a strong voice of the customer. I have too many internal ideas and influences and I need product management to be that sane, reliable voice.”

2. Speak the Language

Depending on your background, business heritage, past roles and organization, you may be comfortable in speaking the multiple languages of business. However, I’ve noticed product professionals that only speak one language. Remember, you are the dynamic translator for your organization and as such you have to understand, decipher and communicate what’s really being said. Reading the list below, which languages do you speak?

TechnoBabble - a dialect formed in the halls and labs of computer science programs and information technology labs, this is often confused with Engineeriam and includes binary bloat at frequent intervals.For those from technical disciplines, the language flows and sounds wonderful when you gather with others who have a technical background, but does your executives speak the sames language?

Executive often wrestle with TechnoBabble and appreciate stories that relate to business problems. Stories are more easily understood by investors, shareholders, customers, analyst or mothers without breaking  sweat. It’s great when you share information in a conversational way and witness the impact it has on customers, users and perhaps your competition.

Sales-a-Coming: is formulated with maps of territories to conquer, treasure to obtain (quotas and revenue). It begins with a quest and often ends with tribal chants when treasure has been found.” Sales-a-Coming is a hunter’s language and is spoken in phrases associated with revenue projections, unit and volume sales, deal closing and the latest hunting tips. An executive with a sales heritage thinks about revenue, growth, volume, earnings per share and the elusive profit. When confronted with TechnoBabble and non-sales oriented communications, executives often tune out before the conversation begins.

To excel in these types of communications, you must have an intimate knowledge of your sales process and how the buying process is interwoven into it. You must own or guide buyer personas (a dialect of hunters) and be known as a sale enabler versus detractor.

Marketing-ese: is a romance language. It’s not built on word count, but founded on stories, conversations and speaking the language of buyers and users without TechnoBabble or dreaded Gobbledygook. David Meerman Scott, author of the Gobbledygook Manifesto shares, “Because writers don’t understand how their products solve customer problems, they cover by explaining how the product works and pepper this blather with industry jargon.” If you are an executive with a heritage founded in Marketing, who do you turn to translate and communicate on behalf of buyers and users? Product management and product marketing will create more value if they can translate and speak Marketing-ese. Once you recognize what languages you speak and which ones you need to learn or improve, what’s next?

3. Objectives
Creating a clear set of objectives that are validated with executive input are ideal. However, if you try to second guess what someone else wants versus asking, you’re possibly failing before you start. If you don’t know, have or understand the objectives of your communications, don’t expect someone to read your mind or organize your thoughts, content and ideas for you. No matter how important the topic is, postpone any communications until you have a set of objectives in place and you are ready for #4.

In the post, “Some simple rules for communicating with executives,” the authors shared; “Executives probably won’t want the same level of detail you might appreciate, won’t have your identical objections, won’t have your passion for your field, won’t have your patience and won’t necessarily prefer the same communication style or vehicles you do.”

To improve your opportunities of communicating, connect with as many people and ask what works and what does not. Discuss presentation styles, and how long will the person listen, before tuning out. If you really want to improve your communications with executives, find someone in your organization whose failed at it and ask them the same questions.

4. Getting Over…Being There
Along time ago, I sat face-to-face with the CEO of a company I worked for. As a young product manager, I had been in other meetings with him, but not one-on-one. About 60 seconds into the meeting, he said, “Did you serve in the military?” I was puzzled and responded that I had not. He said, “You seem a little rigid and tense. I was just wondering.”

At that moment, I recognized that I was overwhelmed at being there. You know. It’s the sensation you get when you venture into uncharted territory. While product management may prepare, have all the facts, figures and data, and rehearsed and reviewed the content many times, there’s no replacement for being there. How can you better prepare for being there?

I’ve learned and continue to apply and refine several questions in preparing. They include:

  • What’s the personality of the executives?
  • What communication methods do they use the most?
  • What’s their threshold for listening?
  • How many points do they absorb?
  • What’s the current political climate?
  • What the best time of the day, week or month to schedule their time?
  • What style of interaction resonates with them?
  • How does my content allow for interaction, acceptance and learning?

5. Delivery

Another important aspect of improving executive communication is, How do you prefer to get information? In the age of mobile connections, with 24X7 access, I’ve found in-person communication is the most effective. This is backed up by a plan that offers access via phone, e-mail or collaborative software. When delivering, the questions I want to have answers to and prepare for include:

  • How much information is enough?
  • Do you want empirical market and customer details or market highlights?
  • Do you require a business case or a financial summary?
  • Would you prefer the product strategy before or after the roadmap and delivery plans?
  • Shall I deliver in text (Word), pictures (PowerPoint), or spreadsheets (Excel)?
  • Will anyone be joining us? (Is this a one-on-one communication or a committee event?)

With these simple improvements in place, I know you will be able to improve your value and increase your credibility. Take the first step by selecting one of the areas and implementing it into your next executive communications. I recognize there are other examples and ask that you share them. As always comments are welcome and encouraged.

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18 Responses to 5 Practical Ways to Improve Executive Communications

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  6. Olaf Kowalik says:

    Great advice, especially about setting objectives and being authentic. We often forget that everyone processes information differently and through different channels. I’ll add a favorite of mine: “A design is not finished when you have nothing left to add. It is finished when you have nothing left to take out.” I have been guilty of “adding just one more thing” until I have created a bloated and meandering presentation. I’ve found that by relentlessly removing words and pages, you can get down what’s really important and that helps delivery immensely.


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  15. Dan Callahan says:

    Great post, Jim! I’ll add a couple of comments.
    1. Fix the typo’s and numeric errors. The CFO will immediately check your addition in a column of numbers and spot any errors. If you have an error, you’ve lost your credibility. (Hint: get familiar with the Excel ROUND function if you don’t want to manually correct your numbers.) For others, spotting a typo or grammatical error is the kiss of death.
    2. Be prepared. If you’re prepared, you’re confident, and it will show. I had a meeting with our CEO recently, on ways to accelerate our product delivery. After initial agenda-setting, he insisted that we turn off the projector and conduct the meeting using the whiteboards in the room. If I hadn’t been prepared for the meeting, it would have been a disaster.
    3. Read the room. Circumstances surrounding the meeting and presentation may have changed, making your presentation more off-topic than on-topic. If you’re prepared and confident, and able to speak in a natural style (to your first point), you’ll be able to adjust your presentation and keep the audience engaged. In addition, the audience will understand that you’re a person who can recognize and react to a changed situation–and that’s a good thing.

    • Jim Holland says:

      Dan – Thanks for the input and comments. Great addition with preparation as a key practice. Noted and changed the errors.

    • Jim Holland says:

      Dan – Thanks for the input and comments. Great addition with preparation as a key practice. Noted and changed the errors.

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