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Communicating Executive Confidence

Some hard truths about communicating even when you don’t have all the answers

Whether speaking to clients, colleagues, or the general public, there’s a tendency for speakers to follow the adage given to writers: stick to what you know. Generally, solid advice for communicators, but there’s a more complicated dynamic at play for executives operating in the real world. There are going to be times when you simply can’t wait for all the answers before being called on to communicate what you know.

If you’re an executive, you’ve got a timetable for action and that means communicating your priorities, to inform or persuade others. If you’ve got a briefing or meetings scheduled, board or investor presentations, testimony or speeches to deliver, you’re not scheduling your communications solely at your own convenience.

The competing pressures of communicating about what you know and having the time to be certain of the path forward are always present for decision makers. That doesn’t mean that your communications must suffer.

Even when uncertain of what you might later learn, confidence in the communications you do deliver is essential. Communications can’t always wait for the underlying problem to resolve, so the strength of your communications simply can’t depend on those definitive outcomes.

So how do you communicate confidently, despite uncertain outcomes or lack of time to get all the data you’ll need? Start by reframing your vision of what confident communication looks like.  Separate those powerful communications from definitive outcomes. In fact, there is a silver lining for executives involved in what we might call ‘transitional communications’, and that is to demonstrate real leadership.

Remember that demonstrating executive presence isn’t about having all the answers. It comes from inspiring confidence in those you’re communicating with that those answers will be found, and that there is a path forward to finding them.   

Consider these tips to demonstrate your confident communications, even when you don’t have all the answers:

Focus on what you DO know

In crisis communications, it’s best to communicate what you know when you know it. That advice works for other kinds of communication as well.  You don’t have to know everything possible about an issue to confidently outline what you do know. Keep your communications straightforward and concise. You can use a simple: “Here’s what we know at this point,” rather than dragging your audience through a painstaking rendition of how you got here. It’s up to you to focus your audience on what you’d like them to focus on. Leave the exploration of what alternatives were considered, what didn’t work out, or speculation about what might go wrong for later. Remember that whatever your title, if you’re speaking, it’s an opportunity to lead.        

Take responsibility

Whether a particular outcome is completely within your control or not, take responsibility. Leadership isn’t about blame-laying or wishful thinking. Leadership isn’t even about your title. It’s about owning the moment and shining a light on the way forward. Assume the role of CEO (chief explanations officer). What do you want your audience to know now and how can you inspire those around you to come together?  Demonstrate your own commitment to working toward a solution and to keeping the dialogue going. That may mean engaging an audience or challenging the status quo. If you want to inspire others, you must be inspiring.  (So never let anyone hear you utter a phrase like “It is what it is” in one of these settings.)

Be authentic

There’s no need to display a competency you don’t have in an attempt to demonstrate leadership. Authenticity is one of the widely prized attributes of real leaders.  Instead of trying to “fake it till you make it”, find a way to confidently recognize the expertise of others. Leaders aren’t recognized as such because they can replace each and every person in the organization. They’re leaders because they demonstrate an appreciation for the ability of others and can inspire them to recognize and work toward a common goal.  Regularly highlight ability and talent where you find it and learn to inspire others by confidently being yourself.

Rise above it

Every organization has their share of those who get stuck in the negative. If your job is to focus on problems, that’s exactly what you’ll focus on. For every executive tasked with getting beyond the problem to resolving an issue, there’ll be a gauntlet of naysayers to get through at every layer of the organization focused on why the given solution won’t work. It’s your job as the executive communicating about any issue to light the way out.  Focusing on solutions doesn’t mean being naïve about the possibility of failure. Focusing on solutions doesn’t mean dismissing real concerns or even always having the right answer. What it does mean is considering those concerns but resolving to persuade others to shift their focus to action. If you can demonstrate the ability to be a problem-solver, and better yet, to inspire others to do the same, your confidence is going to be more infectious than those naysayers and right or wrong about your conclusion, that’s going to be recognized as real leadership.

 Aileen Pincus is President and CEO of The Pincus Group, Inc., providing tailored presentation training and media coaching to executives worldwide, with headquarters in Washington, DC.


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