4 reasons why some CEOs communicate like 16-year-olds

Friday 18th March 2016   by Andy Comber

My son has put himself forward to be a senior school prefect. It impressed me greatly. When I was his age, I had no chance even of being a prefect, let alone a senior one. Despite my adolescent bravado, I would have been just too frightened to chuck my hat into the ring.

To pass the first hurdle, he had to prepare a two minute speech, explaining to his peers why he deserved to be selected. They would then vote. The most popular candidates would then be interviewed to decide who’d be selected as senior prefects.

Speech writing - 4 mistakes by CEOs

So, here’s my point. I did my bit to help my son prepare his speech, and it got me thinking that when 16-year-olds decide they want to impress their peers with a presentation, they start to behave a bit like some company CEOs I’ve known. Here’s why:

They use long words and complicated language. My son prepared a speech that used quite a lot of long words and intricate sentences. He might have been doing it to try to impress. But I think there is also a natural tendency to feel you must up your game when presenting to others. Without really thinking, language becomes more dense. Sentences get longer. Real meaning, simply put, gets lost.

This is a real risk for business leaders too. If it’s not long, clever words, it’s jargon. You start to say what you think is expected of you, not what you really think and feel. A little bit of show-off might creep in as well. Why use a one syllable word, when a four syllable one is available?

They feel they need to be profound. My son had clearly thought a lot about why he wanted to be a senior prefect. It felt like he was stretching past the obvious and simple to find something to say that was truly profound. In my view, it’s better to do the opposite. When you have two minutes to impress, what you say must be compelling, for sure, but it must be quick and easy to digest as well. CEOs can make the same mistake. If you don’t put yourself in the minds of your audience, you can very easily talk right over their heads.

They don’t involve the audience. Want people to vote for you, you have to justify yourself, right? Well, wrong. You have to be confident enough to talk about your achievements. But to impress others, you have to show more how you understand them, and care about their interests. The best business leaders draw in their audiences, involve them in the story, and get them on side, not play the big I am.

They don’t listen to advice. Grumpy old man time here. My son didn’t think straight away to ask me for advice about his speech, even though I’ve spent pretty much my whole working life as a communication professional of one sort or another. There are plently of company directors who think they know best, too.

Anyway, I did get to give my son some advice. The night before he was due to give his speech. And, I’m sure he took a bit of it. As I write, he has yet to find out if he’s been selected to be a senior prefect, but I hope he will be. Then again, there can be nothing worse than an overly proud dad.