Must-have tips for executive communications

Phoebe Perelman

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Phoebe Perelman

The executive’s role is ever evolving. And there’s been a notable shift in executive job requirements as organizations face increasing public scrutiny and workforces continue to diversify and disperse across the globe. Now, it takes a lot more than subject matter expertise and traditional managerial experience to excel as an executive. Harvard Business Review recently conducted a study to determine what C-suite competencies matter most. The results might surprise you.

After analyzing nearly 5,000 job descriptions for C-suite roles, HBR found that the number one skill sought after by C-suite recruiters is … drum roll please … social skills. Now more than ever, success in the C-suite relies on effective executive communication.

If we’ve learned anything from 30 years of executive communication consulting, it’s this: executive communication is complicated. Execs are under unparalleled pressure to deliver high-stakes outcomes to a host of different stakeholders, and everyone is vying for their time. So, it’s tempting to pawn off communication engagements to your communications team. After all, that’s why you have one … right? Well, not quite.

These days, stakeholders expect to hear from executives directly, as opposed to from a comms team proxy. Edelman found that most internal and external stakeholders expect CEOs to speak publicly — whether to detail organizational updates or to take a stance on social and political issues. And just speaking for publicity’s sake won’t cut it, as stakeholders perceive the quality of information provided as the pinnacle of trust. So it’s essential for executives to not only speak for themselves, but to do so in a way that adds value and brings clarity.

In this blog, we’ll cover what executive communications is, how it benefits organizations, and how execs can level up their communication efforts.

What is executive communications?

What exactly does executive communications entail? Put simply, executive communication is any form of communication between members of the C-suite and their stakeholders. So, any time an executive communicates with:

  • Employees
  • Investors
  • Regulators
  • Customers
  • Business partners

You name it — that’s executive communication. And executive communication isn’t specific to verbal communication. Executive communication ranges in format, from all-staff addresses to product launch presentations to strategic social media posts and email updates.

What can executive communication training do?

The definition of executive communications may be simple. But in practice, it’s anything but. That’s why so many companies are paying the price for poor communications.

  • In a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees, each company cited an average loss of $62.4 million per year because of inadequate communication to and between employees.
  • Another recent study from Grammarly found that U.S. businesses lose $1.2 trillion every year from poor communication practices.

Yikes! As they say in one of my favorite movies, “attitude reflects leadership, coach”. If leadership doesn’t embody what good communication looks like, organizations experience a communication cascade that decreases productivity, morale, and profit.

Fortunately, Duarte has worked in the executive communications training space long before social skills were considered a “must-have” for execs. Here are five starter tips for topnotch executive communications:

5 top tips for executive communications

1. Think audience-first.

Our golden rule is: it’s not about what you want to say, it’s about what the audience needs to hear.

For example, you wouldn’t use the same talking points during a board address as you would in an all-staff meeting. The board may be looking for detailed financial updates and long-term growth projections. But employees may want to know how the numbers will impact their bonuses and day-to-day operational initiatives. So, execs need to approach every engagement through an audience-centric lens.

2. Listen. Really, listen.

It’s easy to forget that communication is a two-way street: one that involves listening. After all, you won’t know what stakeholders want or need to hear if you don’t actively listen to them. To get an idea of stakeholder sentiment, you can distribute surveys, conduct focus groups, launch a suggestion box, or facilitate one-on-one conversations. But you can’t stop there. You must keep that feedback top-of-mind when crafting communications. Active listening is a good place to start, but you can even take it one step further with Adaptive Listening™.

3. Incorporate stories.

Data informs nearly every decision executives make. But when communicating with stakeholders, it’s in everyone’s best interest to refrain from the dreaded “data dump”. Facts and figures alone don’t engage audiences. Stories, on the other hand, are scientifically proven to capture and hold an audience’s attention. Duarte teaches executives and communicators of all kinds how to tell stories using data so they can maximize their message and motivate audiences.


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4. Keep it (strategically) simple.

No one wants to leave a meeting with more questions than answers. So it’s crucial to craft a message that’s simple and gets to the point. Avoid using jargon and technical terms that your audience may not understand. You should cater your content to who you’re speaking to (see tip #1). So, focus only on what your audience needs to hear, and leave any irrelevant, overly-technical details out.

5. Be human.

Sometimes people put executives on a pedestal, as if they exist on a different plane than non-C-suiters. But executives are humans, just like the rest of us. They have homes, hobbies, hopes, and anxieties. And humanness is in. Employees and customers alike seek authenticity and transparency — not perfection.

In fact, organizations with authentic leaders retain more customers and employees. So executives shouldn’t be afraid to show their personality, tell their stories (ahem, see tip 3), and acknowledge their failures when communicating publicly.

What are the benefits of good executive communication to an organization?

We’ve already covered some of the pitfalls of poor executive communication, so I’m sure you can imagine the flip side of that coin. But for clarity’s sake, allow me to explain why effective executive communication has far-reaching implications for your business.

Benefit #1. Maximizes brand reputation

A strong executive voice is one of the most impactful ways to represent a brand. Executives have the platform needed to:

  • Spearhead change
  • Demonstrate company values
  • Regulators
  • Customers
  • Shine a light on organizational culture — if they can communicate well, that is

When executives communicate with clarity and charisma, it cements a sense of confidence in their organization’s potential, recruiting support from investors and customers alike. Take it from former Cisco CEO, John Chambers. In this interview, he reveals what he looks for when investing in a company. The second most telling sign of a successful venture? According to Chambers, it’s the founder: “You bet on world-class CEOs.”

Additionally, Sprout Social found that 32% of consumers say CEO transparency on social would inspire them to buy from that business. And 63% of people say CEOs who have their own social profiles are better representatives for their companies than ones who don’t.

But effective executive communication doesn’t just pay off externally — it’s integral to internal success, too.

Benefit #2. Builds trust

Executives who communicate consistently and transparently build trust with their staff. When leaders keep employees informed about important decisions and changes, employees are more likely to feel valued, respected, and safe. We operate at a time when employees may experience a sense of ‘separateness’ as they work from home. Not to mention that they may feel less secure in their position as economic uncertainty prevails. So building trust as a leader is a must.

Benefit #3. Fosters clarity and purpose

When leaders communicate their vision, priorities, and progress clearly and authentically, employees understand what’s expected of them and can see how their work contributes to their company’s overall success. This promotes a sense of purpose, making employees feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Benefit #4. Increases engagement and retention

When executives communicate in a way that builds trust, fosters clarity, and promotes a sense of purpose … they’ll have happy, long-term employees on their hands. Just like poor executive communication results in a domino effect, so does powerful executive communication. According to one study, 84% of employees with high role clarity intend to stay with their organization. Another study shows that “trust in leaders” is the #1 indicator of employee engagement.

It’s a no-brainer: effective communication at the executive level can dictate the success or failure of your organization.

Do you need an executive communications strategy?

The short answer is heck. yes. An executive communications strategy is just as important as a brand or marketing strategy. And it should not be taken lightly.

An executive communication strategy connects your overarching business priorities with communication opportunities. Are you aiming to cut costs? Diversify your workforce? Launch a rebrand? Each of these initiatives requires audience-specific communication. So once you’ve outlined your key priorities, identify everyone who needs to be in the loop or will play a part in making that priority a reality.

Referring to the three priorities above, critical audiences may include (but aren’t limited to):

  • The Board and Internal Operations (cut costs)
  • Human Resources and prospective employees (diversified workforce)
  • Marketing and the public (rebrand)

You’ll likely need to communicate to various audiences in support of the same priority. Both the channel you use and the message you craft for each of these audiences will differ. That’s where an executive communications plan comes in.


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Do you need an executive communications plan?

If an executive communications strategy is the “what”, an executive communications plan is the “how”. An executive communications strategy is high-level. The executive communications plan is much more tactical. Think of it like a content calendar: it organizes content so that messages are communicated to:

  • The right people
  • In the right way
  • At the right time
  • On the right channel

What an executive communications plan could help with

Let’s return to one of the examples above.

A new executive wants to prioritize hiring more diverse talent. She first needs to communicate this goal to HR. She does so by highlighting the current state of diversity, the organizational impact diversity (and lack thereof) has, and new recruitment goals and tactics.

But if the same exec spoke to an audience of diverse jobseekers at a major industry event, she wouldn’t include any of the information she presented to HR. Instead, she’d talk about company values, career opportunities, and their organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Both engagements support the same strategic goal, recruiting a more diverse workforce, but the message being communicated is very different. That’s why executives need a communications plan: to outline specific messages for specific audiences regarding specific priorities.

An executive’s role in communication planning

Although a communications associate may be the one refining the details and crafting the messages, it’s critical that executives stay involved in strategy development so that their communication remains authentic. Because ultimately, it’s the executive doing the talking (or typing). And every executive has their own preferred style of communication.

It’s up to execs to work with their comms teams to determine how they’re most comfortable communicating and to make sure their unique voice shines. This collaboration will help limit surprises and guarantee that everyone is on the same page when developing an executive communications strategy.

What can executive communication training do?

The hallmark of a successful leader is a willingness to learn and grow. Whether you’re brand new to the C-suite or a seasoned CEO, executive communication training can be a game-changer for your career and your entire organization. Executive communication training can help executives:

  • Articulate a vision
  • Refine their executive presence
  • And inspire audiences of all kinds

1. Convenient executive communication training

If you’re a newer executive, foundational training like the Captivate™ workshop may be a good place to start. Captivate™ is a two-day group workshop that covers the basics of persuasion and presence.

2. High-touch executive communication training

If you’re a more seasoned executive looking to take your communication from good to great, consider one-on-one speaker coaching. This high-touch service consists of multiple, personalized training sessions structured around your needs. Whether you want to refine your content, rehearse your delivery, or just practice taking the stage, our expert speaker coaches support specific growth areas and high-stakes engagements.

Duarte offers the best executive communication training … hands down

Since 1988, Duarte has acted as a communications consultant for some of the biggest brands in the world. We’ve coached and trained experts from companies like Apple, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Cisco … just to name-drop a few.

Our founder, Nancy Duarte, literally wrote the book(s) on leading through change and applying storytelling techniques for persuasive business communication. Now, this foundation is the root for all our live workshops, self-paced courses, and one-on-one coaching services that help executives transform their organizations.

Duarte’s training approach delivers results

This two-fold approach is unique. When workshops and courses are combined with one-on-one speaker coaching, leaders move quickly from theory to application. Practicing what they learned in real-world situations while getting personalized feedback fast-tracks performance because the combination of coaching and training leads to transformative results.

In addition to corporate training and one-on-one coaching, we can solution architect comprehensive education programs for your entire organization. This improves everyone’s ability to lead and provides a common framework and language when implementing new communication practices.

Duarte’s training programs cover topics like:

These are the skills that executives need to level up their communication and connect with audiences of all kinds.

So if you, or an executive you know, wants to step up your executive communications game, let’s talk about how Duarte can help you develop more mic-drop moments.


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