Communicating at C-level

The marketing assistant shook her head and sneered, “You just can’t be serious.” She saw the puzzlement in my eyes, and continued. “This copy is supposed to be aimed at the C-level suite.”

Whatever message her critique was supposed to convey wasn’t registering, and her frustration quickly became evident. “You know, it’s for corporate leaders. It has to sound like it’s educated, not like … well, not like this.”

I studied the page of copy and wondered what I had done to make her think it reeked of ignorance instead of reflecting the proper level of erudition.

Then I saw it. I had used a contraction in the second sentence. Oh, and here was a sentence fragment. And how could I ever choose “use” over “utilize?”

After all, these are important people who are much more intelligent than we mere mortals. They live in the rarefied air of the C-level suite, where language is formal and precise, and where success is reflected in the number of syllables used. Her company’s message had to do more than inform and motivate these captains of industry; it also had to function as a sort of verbal genuflection to their majesty.

What a load of crap. And sadly, it’s a load of crap I’ve encountered time and again. Having spent a significant amount of time working with — and communicating with — the denizens of that mythical C-level suite, I’ve reached an astounding conclusion.

They’re people. Yes, you may think of them as CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs, CMOs, CCOs, and any number of other abbreviations, but when you come right down to it, they’re ordinary human beings who eat, drink, sleep, and do all of the things the rest of us do every day. Granted, they might travel between those things in nicer cars than you and me, but their hearts, stomachs, livers, and brains all function much the same.

Especially their brains. I’ll yield to the fact that the average C-level suiteholder has a higher IQ than most of the people in the average company. I’ll also concede that he or she has acquired a larger-than-average vocabulary. Most I’ve met are possessed of great wit. But their brains are governed by the same processes and emotions that help the rest of us get through every day.

When they speak, they sound like the rest of us, too. I suspect that many people imagine conversations in Queen Victoria’s formal vernacular, but having chatted with more C-levelers than I could possibly count, I can assure you that they speak the same language we do. You’ll hear them use contractions and start sentences with conjunctions, and they’re not the least bit ashamed of that. Nor should they be.

So when it comes to communicating with the occupants of those C-level suites, you don’t need to employ any special vocabulary or syntax. They respond to the same conversational tone and warm, friendly style that motivates other humans. While they may have a stronger grasp of the subject matter, that doesn’t mean they prefer to read formal, highly detailed treatises of whatever you’re trying to convey.

Actually, most of them are too busy to wade through piles of content, so they appreciate people who communicate clearly, simply, and — most of all — concisely. Catch their eyes with a provocative fact or promise, and you’ll get their complete attention.  Quickly show them real-world proof that your product or service accomplishes what you say, and they’ll consider your sales pitch.  But hand them something as formal and clunky as that paper you wrote for your sophomore political science class, and they’ll discard you in favor of whatever’s next in line.

“Don’t lose sight of the fact that they are human and will respond to emotional messages.”

Don’t lose sight of the fact that they are human and will respond to emotional messages. Whether your message provokes joy, fear, curiosity, anger, happiness, or any of the emotions that we all know, it will reach them more deeply and effectively than one that focuses solely on rational facts.

Why do some people insist that the folks in the C-level suite function at a different level? My guess is that it reflects their own senses of inferiority or intimidation. Because they personally believe that they’re somehow beneath those leaders (and by that, I don’t mean on the org chart), they must approach them on bended knee. Yes, I’ve worked with some CEOs who took a godlike approach to dealing with the minions on their payrolls, but they represented a miniscule minority of the corporate leaders I’ve known. In fact, most capable C-level executives detest employees who behave like toadies.

So if you really want to reach the folks up there in the C-level suites, get up off the floor and reach out to them as a peer, not as a peon.