Exec Comms: You have to practice

There are no shortcuts to telling your story and your company’s story well

There’s little that is as important to a startup in the early days as a founder’s ability to communicate their vision. Clearly and succintly articulating why your company exists, the problems you’re trying to solve and the value your product or service delivers to people and/or businesses is key. It is your job on day one to do this across many audiences (investors, employees, reporters, customers, etc.) and frankly it will be your job forever more, no matter how big the company gets. Even when you hire PR, HR, sales and marketing teams and your organization is hundreds or thousands of people strong—the buck will always stop with the CEO to set the tone internally and externally.

I’ve worked with executives in the technology industry who most would consider to be really gifted public speakers and others who people consider awesome writers. Many people assume they’re so good because they are natural born communicators. For some of them, that’s true. But people are always surprised when I reveal just how much time, energy and resources the execs they admire most dedicate to improving across all manner of communications activities including writing, speaking and media interviews.

The key word there is “time”—as a CEO or executive leader at a busy, fast-growing tech company, that’s something you have very little of. But think of this as a core part of how you develop as a leader. Make the time to invest in this very important skill. There’s nothing worse than having an amazing story to tell only to get frustrated when you try to tell it and it doesn’t land with your audience.

So here are my tips for improving your communications skills as a leader based on how I’ve seen some of the best in the biz approach this.

Define your “North Star” message

This shouldn’t be confused with a mission statement or a snappy slogan. Rather, what is the one thing you want people to know about what your company does? When you speak on stage, in front of your employees or do an interview with a reporter—what is the high-level message you will always deliver in one way or another? We live in a time when a lot of information is flying at people quickly. Everything bears repeating. You need to stay clear on what you want the world to know about your company and everything should ladder up to that message. Oh and you want to use regular people language. Avoid jargon and tangents. Stay on target, speak like an actual person.

Don’t practice in the mirror

Practice with other people. In the beginning, if you don’t have a great communications person, practice with one of your founders, one of your investors, a friend, etc. If you’re preparing to speak at a conference, in front of a big room of potential customers or with a journalist—get in a room with another person who knows your product or knows the audience and have them ask you questions and practice answering them. This is what really great speakers—the ones who make it look natural—do. The key is not doing it alone. There is something about having a real life human listening to your words that helps you callibrate your messaging, your tone, your energy, etc.

Practice in multiple sessions

If you have a big press interview coming up or you’re speaking in front of a big audience and the stakes are high, you really want to build in a plan for multiple practice sessions. Stick one on the calendar for two weeks out to kick things off. Create a group of people who are going to be the team that preps you for this appearance. The first session is a good opportunity to workshop and brainstorm messaging. Use your North Star to riff on the three main points you want to make in this appearance (I like, as a rule, three main talking points for specific occasion to keep diciplined and on message). Make sure someone is taking good notes and circulates what you land on.

Book a couple more sessions the week of the event. These can be shorter but get to work practicing. If you are giving a keynote, deliver it to your team. Have them time you. Solicit feedback. Test out different ways of describing things, etc.

Finally, make sure you have a prep session night before (if it’s early morning) or morning of. One misconception I run into frequently is the idea that running through your messaging or talk directly before the event or interview means you won’t be “fresh” for the real deal. That’s wrong. Public speaking and interviews are always better when you warm up as close to the moment as humanly possible.

Write a lot and make time to read

Writing is hard for a lot of people, especially technical product-driven people. The only way to improve your writing is to practice a lot. You don’t have to publish, but before you prep with a team, sit down and write down all your thoughts on messaging and who your audience is. You don’t need perfect words in the beginning. It’s good to get them out and return to them later. Also, getting really good at writing internal updates for your employees is such a useful skill. The more you practice and solicit feedback on your emails and your messaging as you go along, the better you will get.

It’s also worth defining what counts as “good” writing for an executive. To me, it’s the ability to convey exactly what you mean to your audience in a voice that is completely authentic to you as a leader and in line with the brand you are building for the company.

Reading is also key. And not just Medium posts, but actual books. I find the more I read the better I get at writing—it’s totally connected. If you want to read a really good book that will also inspire you to invest in your writing, I highly recommend Stephen King’s On Writing.

No sycophants

Finally, don’t surround yourself with people who won’t tell you the truth. You need constructive criticsm and feedback in order to improve and you should ask people to give you feedback on nearly everything. This is an important trick of the trade. Every time you do a press interview, your PR person should send you feedback either in person or via email. Sometimes it helps to basically require it and give the people who work for you the permission to be very honest.

Designate a person or a team that you trust to send you feedback every time you do a press interview, talk to the entire company, talk to customers or at an event. Ask people on your team to send you three things you could have done better and three things they think you should repeat. Ask them to help identify trends in your comms style—do you frown too much? do you ramble? are you delivering North Star messaging? are you burying the lede?

This final piece—soliciting hardcore feedback—is super important. It’s what the pro’s do. My advice to you is to do it too and as soon as possible if you aspire to the big leagues.