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Build Your Executive Communication Skills

For strong communication skills, one size does not fit all. Leaders—especially new and aspiring ones—need to adapt how they communicate to influence, persuade, and motivate others.

By Allison Torres Burtka

Communication skills are important for everyone, but they are especially important for leaders and aspiring leaders. The communication skills that served you well at the beginning of your career might not suffice if your role expands to lead a team or head up a project.

"Higher-level communication skills are one of the most important parts of leadership success," says Carol Vernon, a certified executive coach and principal of Communication Matters. And you can't simply master these skills and then never worry about them again. "Your communication skills need to evolve as your career evolves," she says, "and communication skills development needs to be a priority."

But where do you start? First, you have to assess your skills honestly, and you need feedback from others to do that. You can start by noticing how people respond to you, Vernon suggests. Watch their body language. Are their eyes engaged? How are people listening to you?

Vernon recommends asking one or two trusted colleagues for feedback on a regular basis. You can say: "Hey, I'm working on fine-tuning my communication skills and my leadership voice. I'd appreciate your observing how I'm communicating in this meeting."

What to Work On

The skills that aspiring leaders need to sharpen vary depending on many factors. But often, the biggest challenge is "speaking up and getting into a conversation," Vernon says. "There may be times in our career where we sit back and wait until we have more information to speak up, but aspiring leaders need to speak up."

Vernon recommends three main areas of focus:

  • Learn to use simple, straightforward language and minimize jargon. "Executive-level communication tends to be shorter and more to the point," she says.
  • Notice the tone of your voice, and make sure you use vocal variety and convey engagement
  • Pay attention to your body language. "Are you leaning in when someone is talking—or leaning out, communicating lack of interest?" Vernon asks.

The level of detail you communicate is another consideration. Higher-level communication focuses more on the outcome than the activity—and more on stories than on details, Vernon says.

There may be times in our career where we sit back and wait until we have more information to speak up, but aspiring leaders need to speak up.

—Carol Vernon, Communication Matters

"Executive-level communication requires or invites the idea of converting data into stories" because people connect with stories, she says. "Instead of dumping a bunch of data on the table," think about the context you use to frame the data.

Also, listening is more important than you might think. "Listening is a true skill set," Vernon says. "How do we demonstrate that we're really listening—not just for show, but truly listening?"

Successful leaders need to recognize that "communication is not just about us," Vernon says. "Communication becomes: What do they already know, what do they need to know, and what do they want to know?" rather than what you want to tell them. "More polished communicators recognize it's not all about them."

Using this framework—what the listener knows, needs to know, and wants to know, as well as what you want to say—can help you better influence, persuade, and motivate people. "To influence, make sure you're speaking to what is it they want to know," Vernon says. "What are they listening for?"

Observe and Practice

By observing other leaders, you can pinpoint what you want to improve and set goals. And you can become more aware of your association's communication culture.

"Every organization has its own culture," Vernon says. For example, "maybe there's a lot of silence in meetings," which can make extroverts uncomfortable and want to fill the silence. But, at a more senior level, the silence might mean the participants are considering something carefully, and there's no need to fill it.

Vernon recalls working with an association executive who, earlier in her career, was the person who always had the answer. As she moved into more senior roles, she learned that people believed she wasn't thoughtful because she always had an immediate response. So Vernon cautions against "overleveraging some of your communication strengths that may have served you well previously."

Practice is essential, she says, and "a higher-level leadership opportunity might require being creative." For example, people often want to build their presentation skills but lack opportunities to present at work, so they can look for other opportunities, such as through volunteer work.

Vernon stresses the importance of committing to developing your communication skills and recommends tapping into a wealth of available resources—books, websites, workshops—some of them free.

"Identify the resources that are going to serve you well," and then set goals and practice, Vernon says. "Like any other skill, [higher-level communication] takes practice and fine-tuning."

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Email: [email protected]

Leadership Development Career Development