Executive communications is an important function in B to B and B to C industries because a company’s executive leadership is the face and voice of the organization. Executive leadership is heavily involved in external communication to customers, partners, investors, regulators, analysts, and the press. Even consumers who aren’t direct customers of a company expect its leaders to speak out publicly on issues that matter to them. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 60% of consumers expect CEOs to speak publicly about controversial social and political issues, making executive communications a particularly delicate and nuanced undertaking. Executives can drive change on a massive scale by spearheading a movement around issues that reaches past the boundaries of their company…if they communicate well.
Interacting with external stakeholders consumes a lot of time for most corporate leaders because those communications need to be crafted carefully and delivered deftly. But executives play an equally important role in internal communication to cascade strategies and goals across the company and provide inspirational talks that increase employee engagement, satisfaction, and motivation. In successful, high performance companies, executives are not only effective spokespeople but also persuasive storytellers who use a combination of business communication, presentations, and stories to gain trust, build confidence, and lead change. Regardless of the message or setting, leaders must always be ready to speak with clarity, confidence, and professionalism anytime they’re in front of an audience (be that in-person or via remote or hybrid meetings).
Leaders are required to speak in a wide range of situations across any channel of communication, from keynotes at industry events, to presentations in executive briefing centers, to investor calls and media interviews and press conferences as well as internal town hall meetings, coffee talks, and fireside chats. But executive communication extends beyond the spoken word to include written messages like emails, memos, reports, and social media posts. Often the primary spokesperson is the CEO, but any member of the executive team can be called upon to represent the company’s perspective and articulate key messages, such as heads of finance, marketing, operations, or product management.
What this article covers:
- Plan to communicate
- Build a strong foundation of executive communication skills
- Presentation skills for executives
- Communication and presentation training for executives
- Work with an executive communication coach
- Communication coaching plans for executives
- Executive coaching services
- Executive presence training
- Mind what you say and how you say it
- Books on presence
Plan to communicate
It’s important to have a plan in place for leadership communication so there’s no ambiguity or confusion, especially in high-stakes situations. An executive communication plan should include:
- company messaging framework with key messages, supporting points, and reasons to believe
- direction on which member of the executive team will address each message
- definition of the channels, formats for executive communications
- processes for drafting and disseminating executive communications.
Part of the planning process should also include providing training and coaching for key executives and leaders on how to communicate effectively and deliver the message properly, all the way down to the facial expressions, vocal techniques, and body language they use when speaking. It may seem like minutia, but even the tiniest micro-expression can erode an audience’s trust. If an executive’s voice shakes with nervousness when asked to answer a tough question, or if a slight smirk creeps across their face while talking about a serious subject, it can arouse suspicion that the leader is not being totally honest in their answers.
To appropriately represent the company, an executive needs to master many effective communication skills from public speaking and storytelling to active listening, interpersonal communications, and emotional intelligence. In fact, research conducted by Duarte, Inc. in 2022 found that communication and emotional intelligence were the top two most important skills leaders are expected to develop. Some of these communication skills may be briefly addressed in an executive education program, but typically only on a superficial level.
To refine executive presence and effective communication, leadership development programs should include training on public speaking as well as personalized executive coaching.
Build a strong foundation of executive communication skills
Whether an executive is speaking to shareholders or direct reports, they’ve got to land key messages in a way that will build trust and allay any concerns or fears an audience has. Training on effective communication, public speaking, and storytelling techniques can help executives polish how they articulate ideas, answer questions, and create an emotional connection with both internal and external audiences. When evaluating executive communication training or public speaking training, look for programs that address a range of communication skills, including:
Successful executive communication as well as internal communications requires well-thought-out plans that define key messages, deliverables, and channels as well as guidance on how to tailor messages to meet the needs of different audiences. It’s tempting to focus on what the organization wants to communicate, but winning over skeptical audiences also requires understanding empathetically why they might resist and using the right messages delivered in the right way to overcome their concerns. Look for training workshops where executive communication teams can work collaboratively to build communications strategies and messages that will resonate with their target audiences, particularly through the use of stories, speeches, symbols and ceremonies as in Duarte’s Illuminate workshop.
Leaders frequently give speeches or deliver presentations at externally oriented executive events like industry conferences or customer and shareholder meetings as well as communicate with team members in video collaboration meetings. No matter the setting, executives must be clear, confident, and authoritative. So consider presentation skills training and speaker coaching services that give executives opportunities to practice delivering a message and get feedback from expert coaches on what they say as well as how they say it. A skilled coach will evaluate and improve the executive’s use of vocal techniques, facial expressions, and body language as well as their ability to be comfortable, dynamic and empathetic when engaging the audience.
Storytelling is a powerful method for making ideas and data understandable, relatable, and memorable. As Nancy Duarte says, “The structure of a story is always about a protagonist who goes through something really difficult and is changed in the process. As leaders, that’s what we do every day.” So stories should be part of any leader’s communication toolkit to not only explain your vision and strategy but also to share your perspective and experience so people will follow you into the future. A talented speechwriter can help executives uncover their stories and shape them into a persuasive structure, while speaker coaches can guide leaders to bring their stories to life in a compelling way for audiences. Visuals are sometimes overlooked as a component of storytelling, yet studies show that messages are easier for audiences to process and understand when accompanied by visuals that reinforce what the speaker is saying. That means communication teams who write speeches and design slides for leaders should also take classes to hone their storytelling and visual thinking skills.
While executives are often speaking to large audiences, even on a global level, don’t ignore the importance of communicating well in small group or one-to-one settings when looking for executive training and coaching. Interpersonal communication is an essential part of leadership strategy because influencing people to adopt ideas and embrace change is a game of inches, where victories are won conversation by conversation. That means executives must perfect their ability to not only speak but also listen to how people respond to their messages, which can be improved with training and coaching. Research shows effective listening increases employee engagement and improves overall health of the organizational culture. It takes more than performing active listening like head-nodding and smiling, though; it’s all about having empathy for the person who’s talking. To accelerate traction in their organizations, leaders must adapt how they listen to their team members to fully understand what’s being said (or unsaid) and uncover how they can best move initiatives to the next step.
One of the core principles of great communication is empathy because it helps audiences feel they are heard, understood, and valued. Having empathy for customers or partners helps an organization and its leaders develop solutions that effectively solve their challenges. Showing empathy for employees during a difficult change can defuse negative emotions and increase motivation to keep trudging through the tough times. So when planning to communicate, executives and their teams should think about their audiences first to identify what they want, or need, to hear from you and determine what will best engage your audience and shift their perceptions. Empathy bonds people together and makes them want to move mountains; that’s exactly what executives need to achieve.
Presentation skills for executives
Giving engaging presentations to audiences large or small is a core part of the communication routine for senior executives. Standing in front of a PowerPoint while reading bullets from a teleprompter is a ritual most executive presenters have a lot of experience doing. In addition to mastering the fundamental communication skills mentioned earlier, any executive should get presentation training or coaching on c-level presentation techniques. Presentation skills for executives to master include:
- Applying story structure to craft persuasive and engaging presentations that pack maximum impact
- Incorporating anecdotes and personal stories to increase emotional appeal and build connection
- Overcoming bad public speaking habits like fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or using filler words
- Honing your skills in handling hostile audiences, answering tough questions, and staying on-message in a business presentation, media interview or a panel conversation
- Developing a unique presentation style that fits your personal brand and sets you apart from peers in the industry
- Practicing vocal variety and dynamic body language including using intentional movement to underscore key points and hold the audience’s attention
- Ending with a compelling summary and powerful “new bliss” that motivates action
All of these techniques have a place in most executive presentations, whether it’s a mainstage keynote, sales presentation, media interview, business development meeting, or policy briefing with regulators or the board. Even if you’re a pro who’s been on-stage hundreds or thousands of times, you can always benefit from a boost of new skills training to take your ability to deliver effective presentations to the next level. It doesn’t have to be as involved as taking a month-long management training course, either. Virtual training programs make it easier than ever to hop into a skills workshop without ever leaving work so executives can be ultra-productive and efficient. Talk about an effective presentation!
Communication and presentation training for executives
Executive communication training is a very wise investment, especially for executives who are in highly visible positions or high-potential leaders who are up for promotion into executive roles. When communication is done well, it improves how both an executive’s personal brand and the corporate brand are perceived and even influences positive financial impacts that are evident in a company’s business analytics.
Communication training is available in a wide range of formats, including self-paced online programs, live online programs, in-person workshops, and custom programs, all of which provide learners a certification of completion at the end. Sometimes communication skills are touched upon in executive education programs offered by universities like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT Sloan, Northwestern and Columbia to name a few. But skill-building in public speaking, storytelling, interpersonal communication, and executive presence is best accelerated with tailored programs for organizations and their leaders so they get targeted professional development that meets their specific requirements within the timeframe they need to achieve it.
Training providers like Duarte that offer corporate workshops, as well as programs for individuals, can design comprehensive education programs for all of a company’s executives and their teams. This combined approach to team and individual learning improves everyone’s ability to lead while giving them common language and frameworks for building effective communication strategies. When executive 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 improvements because coaching and training together lead to transformative results.
Sometimes when people search for executive training, the length of sessions is a concern. You might think shorter is better, given how busy executives and senior leaders are. Every hour they’re away from work is an hour not spent solving a pressing business problem or having an important conversation with a key stakeholder. Yet, it takes time to undo bad communication habits and replace them with productive behaviors that a speaker can capably and confidently repeat on their own.
If an executive doesn’t fully overcome problematic habits, it can have a negative impact on public perceptions, which only leads to an increased need for communication to rebuild reputation. So rather than choosing training simply based on the timeslot you have, specify the results you’re looking to achieve and look for providers who offer practical and outcome-focused training programs that can get your leaders to a higher level of performance as presenters, speakers and storytellers.
Work with an executive communication coach
What takes an executive’s public speaking from good to great? Working with an executive communication coach. Though they might not admit it, you can bet that most top leaders in highly visible companies have gotten executive coaching at one time or another. One estimate suggests that 25-40% of Fortune 500 companies use coaches. While some coaches focus on helping executives achieve broader business performance and leadership goals, others focus on communication specifically to shape how leaders speak to better inspire, motivate, and make a positive impact on audiences.
To put it another way, executive communication is something leaders need to work at improving all the time. The chief executive of a well-known Fortune 500 company in San Francisco brings his own personal speaker coach to events around the globe, simply for the convenience of getting in one last practice session before he takes the stage for each keynote. That dedication has paid off with high employee satisfaction ratings, which position him among the top 20 of CEOs along with a reputation in his industry as a trusted thought leader and visionary who communicates big ideas well.
To uplevel their communication skills and develop a polished and commanding presence, executives must dedicate hours to learning and practicing new speaking techniques. The world’s best presenters put in the work and it shows in the quality of their delivery.
Learn from the best
One of the most gifted executive communicators of all time is former Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, who mastered the art of public speaking to influence audiences of all kinds. You could even say he was Apple’s Chief Storyteller, although that wasn’t his official title. He was renowned for delivering highly engaging and polished keynote presentations that were more like rock-star performances than bland corporate updates.
But great presentations didn’t happen overnight or appear out of the blue; Jobs was constantly refining his messaging and visuals and practicing his delivery to near perfection. His event keynotes were a thing of beauty, but Jobs was equally adept at taking questions in a casual Q&A or handling difficult conversations. During a season when developers were flocking away from the Mac OS, Jobs chose to host a fireside chat to tackle their concerns head-on. Jobs displayed strong listening skills as he paused to really take in what was being asked before communicating his point of view with precision and a touch of humor. These are all important skills in the workplace, but they’re especially crucial for leaders and aspiring leaders.
Choose a qualified coach: Choosing an executive communication coach may be a matter of personal preference because having a strong rapport and chemistry is important for good collaboration between the leader and their coach. But here are some basics to look for when interviewing potential communication coaches:
Skills covered: Executives are called on to communicate in a wide range of situations, from internal to external, formal to informal. So look for a coach who is also experienced in a variety of communication settings, including presentations, public speaking, interpersonal communication, mindful communication, or listening skills. It’s not enough to know how to deliver media training as that covers only a subset of scenarios where executives need to communicate with clarity and confidence. You need a coach who can help you engage your audience, no matter who or where they are.
Success stories: Any executive communication coach worth their salt should be able to share case studies of leaders who they’ve transformed. Ask for testimonials from people their organization has coached so you see from the customer’s perspective what makes their coaches so effective. Get the coach to describe how they helped those leaders achieve their goals and what unique steps or methods they use that differentiate them from other providers.
Engagement models: Given how busy executives are, the services offered need to flex with their needs. The right executive communication coaching provider will offer flexible delivery options, including the choice of meeting in-person or virtually, at the executive’s office or on-site at an event. They should also provide ability to schedule training or coaching sessions as short as one hour or as long as a half or full day, depending on the executive’s development goals and time available.
Communication coaching plans for executives
To enhance the influence and reputation of a leader, it’s well worth the time to hire a communication coach who will work with each executive one on one. A typical communication coach will follow a step-by-step executive coaching program to work toward specific and attainable goals that the speaker and their expert advisor identify together.
Duarte’s experienced communication coaches all use our proven approach called the Duarte Method™ to guide speakers on a journey to become the best communicators they can be. In addition to public speaking training, we offer speaker coaching services to help executives rehearse for a particular presentation, refine their presentation skills, or completely transform their communication skills. Each coaching engagement includes several components:
The coaching relationship is personal, so it begins with an initial meeting where the executive gets to know their coach, learns about their experience and approach, and communicates their goals. The coach uses those insights to create a plan for coaching that works for the executive’s specific needs. The first coaching sessions will be calendared based on the depth of development needed and aligned to key dates for any upcoming events where the executive will be speaking.
Using a proprietary rubric that we’ve used to assess and improve thousands of speakers, Duarte coaches conduct a data-driven evaluation of the executive’s communication skills. The coach may also watch videos of the executive’s past talks to visually assess their presentation skills and offer a brief writeup of initial feedback to inform the coaching plan. The executive can even choose to have an assessment both before and after a big event to track improvement over time.
Each executive coaching session is tailored to the executive’s goals. They can use the time to rehearse for an upcoming presentation or get media training, work through a communication challenge they’re facing, or close a skill gap the coach identified in the initial assessment phase or in previous practice sessions. During the session, the executive will receive feedback on their verbal and non-verbal communication, including how they articulate a message and reinforce it with their voice and body language. Coaches might also work with an executive over a series of sessions to help them master the art of storytelling or presenting. By the end, executives leave more confident and capable of giving their best performance.
Duarte’s communication coaches are driven by our mission and values to serve each of our customers with empathy, so we are happy to adapt to the exacting needs of busy executives. We hold ourselves to a high standard of modeling effective communication ourselves, so you should always expect to receive prompt, clear, constructive, and actionable feedback that helps you meet or exceed your goals.
Executive coaching services
Executive coaches and communication coaches have some similarities beyond their shared experience in coaching executives. For instance both types of coaches:
- offer critiques of how business leaders communicate messages
- act as a sounding board to executives as they think through their ideas
- conduct an assessment to give pointed feedback on their client’s strengths and areas for improvement
- recommend individual coaching and training programs to effect behavior change.
Executive coaches, however, tend to take a broader view of a leader’s overall performance in their role and their ability to reach business goals. When preparing for coaching executives, an executive coach might:
- interview key stakeholders such as their senior leaders or members of the board of directors
- look at how executives are spending their administrative and operational time
- uncover patterns in work habits and leadership style that block them and their teams from reaching goals.
As such, executive coaches tend to draft far-reaching development plans designed to close gaps in an executive’s leadership skills and ability to oversee and manage the entire organization effectively. Their advice might span business coaching, board coaching, communication coaching, leadership development, even career coaching for executives and their senior leaders as part of a succession planning initiative.
Leadership coaching programs sometimes extend across the organization’s entire management team, encompassing team coaching and development programs that improve performance from executive leadership on down through the ranks. Coaches may also propose special coaching solutions to help organizations foster more diverse and inclusive leadership teams, including individual and group coaching and leadership development programs for BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and women’s leadership. In these ways, executive leadership coaching can be a potent strategic tool for affecting cultural change from the inside out.
Executive presence training
There’s a lot of talk about the concept of “executive presence” in leadership development circles. But everyone seems to have a different definition of what it is. Is it about things like:
- always appearing poised and self-assured?
- talking in a calm, confident, and authoritative manner?
- practicing “power poses” or dominant body language that makes you look mighty and invincible?
Sure, it’s important to speak with conviction and command the room, like some presence training programs teach. But authentic power comes not only from a leader’s words but from their actions and even their inner mindset.
Executives are often coached to be cool, unflappable—even unemotional—because it’s believed to build trust in their leadership abilities and project an image of success. Keep a steady hand on the tiller, as the old adage goes. What leaders may not realize, though, is employees actually want to see an executive’s human side, too, and connect with them on a personal level.
As Nancy Duarte says, “Some leaders don’t want to talk about the messiness at all. They want to show up and be like ‘I’m strong.’ They want to beat their chest and pat their back. I don’t think anyone wants to follow a leader like that.” To become a truly influential executive that people want to follow, a leader needs to come across in a genuine way, with all of their strengths and weaknesses on display.
Mind what you say and how you say it
Developing executive presence is less about image and more about substance. Here’s how we define executive presence at Duarte:
- what you say
- how you say it
- and how you listen and relate to other people.
The goal is not to “perform” presence, but to actually “be” present as your true self so people feel they’re experiencing and connecting with the actual version of you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare your communications; you’ve still got to know your material and rehearse it so you’ve got your messages down pat. But you don’t want to sound like you’re reading from some “how to be a perfect leader” script anytime you’re talking, whether that’s giving a presentation or having a conversation. People won’t feel attached to a fake version of a leader; they want the real deal.
Achieving this nirvana state of human connection takes communication skills, obviously, but also self-awareness, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence. These aren’t skills you can perfect in the controlled environment of executive education or professional development classrooms. Finding your authentic self as a communicator and infusing it into your everyday leadership style is an ongoing process of change that’s best done through individual work supported by executive coaching. A coach helps get to the heart of who you are and helps you infuse your personal brand into your communication, including the stories you tell and the way you tell them.
In our Captivate™ presence workshops, leaders start with “core work” to uncover their deeper motivations for communicating. We call these motivations the “three P’s”: purpose, passion, and perspective. Combined, the three P’s are what ground a leader, like the roots of a tree, so they communicate from a place of honesty and conviction.
Knowing your roots as a communicator is important for any kind of leader, whether you’re in the C-suite or heading up a function like product management, IT, customer service, or human resources. It’s especially important for emerging leaders from underrepresented populations to be given the opportunity and freedom to show up as their authentic selves and share their life experiences in the workplace. Broadening definitions of “executive presence” beyond stale corporate stereotypes and outdated images of authority helps advance diversity equity and inclusion goals and widens pathways to the top for everyone.
Books on presence
An important tool in any executive’s journey is a personal library of books from thought leaders and experts. These resources should include stories of individuals who have learned the art of executive communication, simple techniques for practicing new skills, and brilliantly researched points of view.
Nancy Duarte’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations is an essential read, containing robust sections on both delivery and impact. She covers some of the biggest challenges communicators face, including rehearsal tips, body language, authenticity, and bringing your boldest self to the occasion.
Amy Cuddy’s New York Times Bestseller Presence also deserves a spot in any communicator’s library. In addition to careful research on body-mind effects, she suggests using power poses and other techniques to liberate your personal power.
Simon Sinek is a well-known author and speaker on leadership topics, and his classic Start with Why will help any communicator start to harness the power of their own purpose.
Popular researcher and author Brené Brown has written many books on the subjects of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her bestselling Dare to Lead particularly explores the question of how to create braver, more daring leaders and embedding the value of courage into a company’s culture.
These books are excellent resources to begin a study on the subject of presence. Other authors to consider are Susan Cain, Michael Wheeler, Jane McGonigal, and William Ury. Each takes a different approach to the behavior and mind-set needed, and each offers a different path to transformation. The key for any communicator is to choose an author or a particular book, and start the journey. Over time, this will lead to a personal collection of author-teachers as well as a curated library of insights and tools.