• Executives play an important role as channels of communication with internal and external audiences
  • Equip executives with content that has been tailored to their personal style and context of the speaking event
  • Media training and speech coaching are vital elements of any program

For corporate communications leaders, having one or more executives who are comfortable speaking at events, being interviewed on camera or speaking to reporters at a moment’s notice is a godsend. Good executive speakers can boost awareness, become extensions of the corporate brand and calm jittery investors in a time of crisis.

But let’s face it – most corporate communications people don’t have a Jeff Immelt or John Chambers sitting in the corner office. That’s why having a team dedicated to supporting executive communications is vital. As with any part of the communications and marketing mix, companies want to make sure they are getting the most out of this function, and not just creating a new administrative layer.

Great executive communications team members are much more than PowerPoint jockeys. Being truly effective in this role requires an ability to tell executives hard truths, coach them on sensitive topics and understand how to translate dry corporate messages into something resembling real sentences that real people would say – and that real audiences would relate to.

To make sure you’re putting your executive communications efforts in the right place – and your executives in the best light – think about building a program around the four Cs of executive communications support:

  • Comfort. One of the primary jobs of an executive communications professional is to help the executive relax and feel comfortable in the inherently stressful role of spokesperson or public speaker. We all do better when we feel comfortable, but media appearances and speaking engagements are profoundly uncomfortable for most people. One way that we can reduce the jitters that come with these situations is to practice in simulated environments. Media training helps executives become aware of what they are projecting through their voice and gestures and gives them a chance to practice their talking points and bridging skills in a supportive atmosphere. It should be a requirement for leaders moving into public-facing, senior roles, and it’s a great idea to do brush-up sessions annually with executives who have already been trained. If there has been an exercise to reposition the organization in the market, this may require a new round of media training. Also, before major public speaking engagements, make sure there is a session with a speaking coach and plenty of practice.
  • Context. Make sure that executives know the situation they are walking into, and make sure they are prepared to shine. One way to do this effectively is to think about how to develop an executive’s personal brand in context of a specific message or topic area. Aligning multiple executives with specific messages grows your bench of speakers, and people are more likely to excel when they are talking about topics where they have significant knowledge. Over time, the executive will come to be associated with certain topics, which further propels their visibility and builds their brand. Another part of context is helping executives to understand where the interviewer is coming from. Is there an issue driving his or her interest? Is this journalist an expert or a novice? Does he or she have a bone to pick? Who is the audience? Armed with a deep understanding of the topic, audience and the specific situation, executives can react more nimbly when and if the interview takes an unexpected turn.
  • Content. Executives are called upon to offer opinions on a great range of subjects, and the best way to prepare them is to provide concise content that they can learn and deliver – aka talking points. These should be written in a way that feels natural to the speaker. This means knowing their characteristic expressions, the natural rhythms of their speech and even the words they consistently trip up on so that they can be avoided. To do this effectively, executive communications people must be connected with the organization’s content factory – and look for opportunities to adapt messaging for the executive’s platform. Avoid overloading executives with too much content though, as the key here is to make it sound as natural and conversational as possible.
  • Connection. Everywhere you turn these days people are talking about storytelling as an important component of marketing. While the theme is somewhat overworked, stories are an effective way to get a point across, and they can be even better when coming out of a real person’s mouth with authenticity. This is where having a good personal relationship with executives is helpful. Understanding their background and personal life – where they grew up, challenges they faced, their family situation – all of these things can contribute to a personal narrative that can underscore a business point. I recently heard from one of our corporate communications clients at a healthcare organization whose COO has spoken movingly about the impact of healthcare technology his organization manufactures has had on his own child who suffered from a serious illness. These personal experiences are moving, as they connect to us people – not just professionals – and they bring the executive into a warmer light.

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to support a number of talented executives, and those experiences are ones I still cherish. It’s even more rewarding to help an inexperienced public speaker gain confidence and a distinctive voice in the marketplace. There are many channels available to us today for communicating with our audiences, but few are as powerful as people