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Learn How to Speak to Executives

Learning Objectives 

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain the qualities of excellent communication.
  • Define the key elements of positive verbal communication.
  • Identify the most common verbal tendencies.
  • List methods to eliminate verbal fillers.

Although email is often the default mode of communication, you also need to know how to talk to executives. You might need to speak to executives in person or over the phone for many reasons: a presentation, providing project or product updates, customer escalation, account planning. Whatever the reason, remember that as excited as you may be about your company’s products or services, your primary reason for speaking to an executive is to talk about how they can improve their business. Your goal is to influence and offer a recommendation or a solution. To do this successfully, you need to effectively communicate. 

Communicators with Executive Presence

So what makes a great communicator? Great communicators focus on establishing a personal connection with their audience and consider what impact their message has. Rather than talking at your audience, actively dial in to the tone, cues, and specific needs of your audience. Talk with your customers about how a product or service can improve the customer’s business, rather than talking at customers about what your company is. 

Great communicators take the time to access their best skills, knowledge, and expertise, and activate them in high-pressure situations, such as communicating to an executive. Failed executive conversations often come down to a lack of confidence or skills. This is why it's imperative to tap into the power of presence. Attitude, behavior, and skills are what make a great communicator. Your presence is how you show up for your customers and when you're speaking to executives. 

Key Elements of Executive Conversations

Going toe to toe with executives, and driving a robust, relevant, engaging, and effective conversation seems easier said than done. Face-to-face communications differ from email communications, and you need to prepare based on what each exec needs. To get ready for your verbal conversations, ensure you understand the key elements of executive conversations. 


Have an agenda. A clear agenda helps ensure your meeting achieves the desired results within the allotted time. It sets the tone and outlines a legitimate business purpose for your engagement. Set an agenda with the objectives and expected outcomes. If possible, ask the executive to confirm or add topics. This provides direction and structure for the conversation and helps you both prepare ahead of time. It also sends the message to the executive that you want to get down to business. A meeting agenda is like a strong subject line in your email: both are vehicles to spark interest in conversation. 


Be knowledgeable. Knowing your argument, facts, and data, or numbers inside and out before your conversations helps build credibility with executives. By knowing what’s relevant, your executive can see you as a trustworthy, reliable, problem solver. It’s also important to know your audience. Different types of executives have different needs, concerns, and communication styles. Research and analyze your customer’s company and industry so you can drive an informed conversation. 


Be concise. Whether it’s email or an in-person conversation, executives want you to get to the point. But being concise can take on a different form in verbal communications. Make your point and move on. You don’t want your executive to start cueing you to wrap it up. For example, instead of a wordy explanation as to why a project is delayed, you can say, “The project that I'm working on is behind schedule, but I have a fix for it.” 


Lead with outcomes. When communicating with executives, get to the point of the conversation first, and provide only the necessary context. Start out by offering the facts without adjectives. Then sum things up, describe the impact, and state a solution, recommendation, or ask.


Speak with conviction. You’re more likely to influence conversation if you communicate confidently. Speak slowly, clearly, and with authority. Believe in what you’re saying—you’ll come off as more authentic and genuine. Don’t be afraid of silence. Know that people process information at different rates. Have strong posture and avoid dreaded filler words (more on that later)—such as, um, ah, like, and ya know, right—that you might use when you’re nervous or unsure. 

Think About Your Verbal Tendencies

Verbal tendencies are repeated behaviors when speaking. If you lean on self-deprecation, over-apologize, or respond too quickly when you communicate, you’re not alone. These tendencies become a default and can negatively impact the ability to effectively communicate. The good news is that there are proven ways to change this behavior. This chart includes common tendencies and suggestions on how to adjust your communication style so you’re more effective.

Ineffective Verbal Tendency
Try This

Softening the message too much

  • Be direct but empathetic.
  • Lead with outcomes.
  • Have a POV.

Self-disqualifying or apologizing

  • Have confidence.
  • Speak with conviction.
  • Apologize only when really needed.

Engaging without stated goals

  • State clear goals.
  • Lead with outcomes.
  • Describe the impact.

Responding too quickly

  • Ensure clarity by pausing before responding.
  • Prepare and anticipate questions.
  • Practice active listening.

Lacking mirroring or adjusting

  • Mirror emotion, tone, and pace.
  • Adjust based on verbal/nonverbal feedback.
  • Use customer’s language and framing.

Presenting rather than conversing (relying on slides too much)

  • Determine your purpose.
  • Provoke and pause for questions.
  • Engage in dialogue.

So, How Do You, Like, Ya Know, Stop Using Filler Words?

Ah yes, those words. Verbal fillers are words or phrases used during speaking to fill in a gap of silence between connecting thoughts or ideas or during a conversation. 

Common fillers include: 

  • Uh or um
  • I mean
  • Like
  • Hmm
  • You know?
  • So

If you listen carefully, almost everyone uses fillers when speaking. When used too much, they can distract from core messages and make even the most knowledgeable speaker seem unprofessional and awkward. How do you kick this habit? 

First, learn how and when you use them. Try recording yourself having conversations, and review the footage for any patterns. Next time you’re speaking publicly, try taking intentional pauses between your ideas so you won’t be tempted to think out loud with verbal fillers. Again, embrace the small pauses and silence. You won’t lose your audience's attention or respect. 

The general approach and some guiding principles outlined in this module can help you improve your executive engagement skills. Follow these best practices to improve how you communicate, influence, persuade, and engage your customers (and especially executives).


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