Getting Your Message Across

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TEC (The Executive Committee) member Andrew Gilman, now a member of Vistage, Int., has made sense of a subject that is profound to say the least: understanding the multiple communication roles that a CEO serves or potentially serves. Let’s take a look at nine of them:

Public speaking

The audience can be shareholders, regulators, fellow citizens, customers, employees, special interest groups, etc. Important to the CEO is having the ability to work from good notes (preferably double-spaced), a teleprompter (requires some training), or just off-the-cuff (very difficult). What matters most—don’t forget this—is the opening and the close. Most people lose track of what’s in between.

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Media skills

First point: Is the media friendly or adversarial? If friendly, use lots of smiles, big gestures, and nice positive bullet points. If adversarial, adopt a serious no-nonsense demeanor, dress appropriately, and use great factual detail. The ability to deflect personal attacks is paramount.

Second point: Rehearse a key message theme and be prepared to repeat it. President Reagan did this extraordinarily well. Learn how to “bridge” one point to the next, even though they might not connect on a pure logic basis. For example, if they ask you a question you don’t want to answer but you want to bridge to your key message, you can say, “We feel that the more important issue is whether…” Then bridge to your key message.

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Don’t ever make a misstatement, where you have to say, “I didn’t mean that.” And avoid negative statements at all costs.


presentation skills

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Your audience: employees. What’s important? Your tone, sense of urgency and your own demeanor tell it all. A “how’s it going” exchange is totally different than a “Houston, we have a problem” exchange.

First, think about which exchange is appropriate for the situation. Second, think about where you will do it: their office, your office, hallway, out in the yard. Third, think about how you personally want to look for the message you want to convey (dress, business-casual). Fourth, think about what you want out of it: action, information exchange, friendly persuasion, or support and empathy.


I have written several articles here on this subject. I have a few brief words of wisdom from TEC members who know this art.

First, listen. Second, don’t follow a timeline. Third, identify and communicate alternatives. Fourth, don’t be afraid to say “thanks but no thanks.”

E-mail and voicemail

Make them succinct and to the point. Stop and think before you punch those keys or leave a message. What you say is easily part of a permanent record.  If you’re using voicemail, when you leave your number, say it slowly. Remember, the average person can only assimilate seven bits of information that they will remember. Keep it under seven.

Meeting management

Last month I talked about “Dashboard” things. Summarized: have an agenda, assign roles, start on time, end on time, and keep them short—30 minutes if you really want to do it right.  I know, you say “My board would never accept that.” Really?

Road show


Trade shows, investor meetings, major customer presentations—they fall into this category. First, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Then eliminate “ah” from your speech pattern. Then go out of your way to acknowledge the value and input of those present, preferably up front.

Finally, in the Q & A, be brief, don’t elaborate, and if you don’t know it, say so.

Lobbying skills

Your audience is local, state or national regulators and legislators. Your presentation must be focused, short and repetitive.

I have been told that your language structure should not exceed what you would use in front of an audience of youths in kindergarten through ninth grades. That means no more than two-syllable words, three at the most.


No one likes this one. The audience can be internal, external or both. You know the sources: business downturns, environmental disasters, regulatory intervention, employee deviancy, and so on.

The worst scenario is to respond to the press, other media, etc., with “no comment.” This is like failing to a take a breath test during a suspected DUI arrest. The best scenario is to present rehearsed comments that signify a definite proactive plan, along with information about when future comments will be released. Bottom line: stay composed, stay cool, and look that way, as in “look in control of the situation.”

Let’s face it. Most of this is common sense. But as CEO, you can be cast into a communication situation unexpectedly. It’s good to review this template if that happens.

I saw a local developer appear before a regional area planning commission to promote his development interests. He was baffling. Why? His dress was shoddy. He rambled. He clearly wasn’t organized or prepared. He became defensive when they cross-examined his plan. And guess what? They tabled his proposal.

Until next month, I urge you to sharpen these basic communication skills. They may be common sense. But it is, quite frankly, uncommon to find a CEO who has taken the time to master them.

Until next month, good communicating.

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of The Executive Committee (TEC) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at (262) 821-3340.

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