How to Talk to an Executive—Start With a Compelling Message

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

By far, the most important element to develop for any executive meeting is a compelling message. The message drives home a clear takeaway and tells the executive what you want and the business outcome you can deliver.

From the moment you walk into an executive's office, the first thought on his mind is, "Why are you here? How is your topic relevant to me?"

In our workshops, managers role-play potential executive conversations. In each program, we start by asking the managers to demonstrate how their meetings begin. Most state an objective for the meeting. Then they jump straight into the details of the topic, without telling the executive why the topic is relevant to him and to the business.

Case in Point

Consider the following conversation starter: “Thanks for your time today. Our topic is global marketing, and over the next 30 minutes, we want to share this year’s plan with you.”

The topic is clear. But an impatient executive has no idea why he should care about the global marketing plan. The meeting begins with the manager’s objective, but it doesn’t reveal a clear benefit to the business or the executive.

After hearing the first few minutes of any role-play, we ask three key questions:

  • What is the topic of the meeting?
  • What decision or input is the manager asking for?
  • What is the benefit or outcome for the business?

Together, these elements create a compelling message. Great messages are delivered in one sentence and combine the concept of what you want and what’s in it for both the executive and the business if you get it.
Here’s how to adjust the example above: “Our topic today is global marketing, and our message is this: By investing $4 million in our global marketing strategy, we will gain visibility in Central America and increase our sales leads by 25 percent this year.”

If you’re the executive sitting across the desk, isn’t the message much more compelling than the overview statement? It gives the executive what he needs:

  • The topic of the meeting: global marketing.
  • The ask: $4 million investment.
  • The return or benefit: visibility in Central America and 25 percent increase in leads.

Most managers see an example of a compelling message and worry that it’s too risky—and it is a little risky. It states a measurement that you may not want to be accountable for achieving. Nevertheless, accountability is the cost of entry to an executive-level conversation. You could state a less compelling message, such as, “By supporting our global marketing strategy, you will gain visibility in Central America and increase our sales leads.”
Then, the executive is going to quickly interrupt the meeting and ask how much of an investment you need and what you believe the potential impact will be. Executives typically hijack meetings because they need clear measurements and expectations to decide whether the business should follow your recommendation. Without the measurements, it’s just an overview discussion. And most executives would say, “If you aren’t ready to commit to the costs of the ask and the impact of the investment, then you’re not ready to meet with me.”

Bottom Line

A compelling message pushes the manager to put a stake in the ground and state the bottom line, which links what he wants with a business impact he can achieve. When done well, it establishes the manager’s right to “lead” the conversation. The message sends a signal that you’re clear about what you need or what you want to recommend and that you are willing to predict and prove a business outcome based on your recommendation.

This solves the most common reason executives hijack meetings: They want to know what your point is. With a compelling message, you’ve already stated it.

Learning how to talk to an exec is a critical part of career development because these conversations provide moments of visibility.  Yet, these conversations can be just as much of a liability as an opportunity.  It’s worth investing the time to learn how to do this well because your ability to successfully lead an executive conversation earns you the right to have another one!

Next Steps

So, you’ve started the meeting with a clear, compelling message. Now what? Join me during my ATD webcast on March 31, when we will explore the rest of the executive conversation, including the executive mindset, the three things executives expect to hear, and the “Executive Conversation Framework.”

About the Author

Sally Williamson is president and founder of Sally Williamson & Associates. She specializes in executive coaching and developing custom workshops for groups that focus on improving spoken communication skills, ranging from formal presentations to everyday communication, as well as selling situations.  She coaches interpersonal communication skills, helping individuals improve their executive presence and overall impressions;

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