Noah Zandan

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What We Advised CEOs on in 2017

At least once a week, someone asks us about the most common strategic counsel we give our CEO clients. But it’s not quite that simple, because at Quantified Communications our analytics and coaching are personalized for each individual speaker’s goals and strengths.

If we’re working with a CEO who’s trying to turn a struggling company around, we may focus on the characteristics that will help her build relationships and inspire loyalty from employees, investors, and customers. If we’re working with a TED speaker, we’ll focus on traits that will help him wow his audience with a memorable story (and get the standing ovation). For a CFO getting ready for an investor presentation, we might hammer home clarity and confidence.

But as we looked back on 2017 and reflected on our client engagements and the broader social conversations we witnessed throughout the year, we saw three common threads that wove through much—if not most—of the communication we measured and the counsel we provided.

1.   Maintain Authenticity in Every Scenario

Perhaps the most prevalent trend in our work is that audiences demand authenticity. We find ourselves working hard to help our clients meet that demand, presenting their authentic selves in front of every single audience—from investors to customers to new employees.

Authenticity, simply put, boils down to the perception that the speaker is addressing the audience—any audience—the same way he would speak to a friend in the elevator or over a beer after work. Audiences crave authenticity from speakers because it indicates that they truly believe in their message and that their words match their beliefs and actions.

The question of whether a leader is authentic or not has grown even more critical in our current social and political environment, where big business is constantly under the microscope, and cultural values are often better marketing tools than even the glitziest advertisements.

(In fact, authenticity has become so integral to our conversations with clients that we took a deep dive, measuring the communication style of each Fortune 100 CEO to find out who among them is the most authentic communicator. Spoiler alert: Jamie Dimon came out on top.)

There are countless ways for leaders to ensure they are coming across as authentic, but here are the top two to keep in mind:

  • Approach every communication as a conversation. When your audience feels like you’re bestowing your overly rehearsed message upon them, they’re likely to tune out. But when you’re using straightforward language and natural gestures or movements, approaching the event as an opportunity to talk with and not at them, the audience will perceive you as more authentic, and they’ll stay tuned in.
  • When you’re taking a social stance, connect your message to your business. These days, there is plenty of pressure on corporate leaders to take a stand on political and social issues. But, perhaps counterintuitively, audiences tend to feel less favorable about corporate activism that is not tied to the company’s bottom line. So to show your audience that you’re taking an authentic stance—and not just blowing smoke to gain favorability—be sure to show how your perspective connects to your business.

2.   Recognize (and Fight) Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases are prejudices we hold against a certain person or group without even realizing we’re doing so. For example, when you hear the word “athlete,” do you picture a man or a woman? You know plenty of women are athletes—and you may even know several women athletes personally—but you probably pictured a man. That’s unconscious bias.

In order to have the impact they want, speakers must be aware of the unconscious biases their audiences are likely holding against them. These may be based on race, age, or title. But the one we hear about most often has to do with gender.

Following her commencement speech at Wellesley last spring, we compared that address to the speech she gave at her own graduation nearly fifty years before. We found that, while Clinton’s authority score had risen 18 percent, her charisma had dropped by 14 percent. This change, and much of the personal criticism she received on the election trail, is indicative of the unconscious bias women in leadership positions face every day. According to political speechwriter Dan Schwerin, traits like passion and authority tend to make male leaders highly likable. For women, on the other hand, authority comes across as cold and impersonal, while passion is viewed as overly emotive or hysterical.

It’s not easy to toe the line between communicating authentically and communicating in a way that will help audiences overcome their unconscious biases. But when leaders understand what they’re up against, they can adjust their communication styles to enhance their impact.

3. Always, Always Be Clear

In our noisy, digitally driven age, the average human attention span is just eight seconds. So how can anyone hold an audience’s attention long enough to get their point across?

By delivering clear, concise messages.

No matter the speaker or the situation, we can never overemphasize the importance of clarity. Are you using accessible vocabulary and digestible sentence structures? Are your main points organized in a way that’s easy for your audience to follow? If not, they’ve zoned out before you’ve finished introducing yourself. 

For example, try to parse the meaning out of this statement a CEO might make in a quarterly earnings call:

“The results of the last quarter were caused by cost-cutting synergies and improved efficiencies and, therefore, by continuing on this path, we can expect our results to be optimized by approximately 10-15 percent in the coming quarters.”

versus

“By continuing the cost-cutting strategies that worked so well in Q1, we will improve our results 10-15 percent by the end of the year.”

See what we mean?

We urge clients to focus on clarity in all their communication, because no matter how good the news or how inspirational the message, it will fall flat unless you make it clear.

 

Improving communication begins with understanding current strengths and weakness and identifying goals. Only then can you really start to tailor your communication style to improve your influence and audience impact. That said, being clear, striving for authenticity, and understanding the audience are three areas we’d recommend any speaker and leader focus on.

 


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