Executive Communications

The art and science of writing to (and for) C-level constituencies

Let’s face it, the folks in the executive suite are a special group.

They have by definition acquired years of experience and (hopefully) expertise in product development, marketing, finance and other strategic business subjects.  Most possess an impressive breadth of knowledge spanning their own organizations’ products and solutions, as well as their industry niche, the competitive environment and the larger world of business.

These are the people with “yes” or “no” power over most large corporate or agency expenditures.  So if you hope to write to or for these “C-level” professionals, you had best bring your “A” communications game.  

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned about communicating in the executive suite. 

The Business Reader

Before putting the first words to the page, you should understand the needs and expectations of the executive readership. 

Top managers respond best to enterprise-level messages that clearly support strategic business values. Executives are responsible for the business as a whole, and are the crucial target audience for any organization hoping to sell a high-dollar capital system or service contract.  When you communicate with these professionals, you should do so with the appropriate style and substance. 

Successful executive communications often describe – in exact and quantitative terms – how the proposed solution delivers operating or capital costs savings, greater productivity, reduced risk and competitive advantages.  Depending on the sector, top managers may also respond to messages focused on growth, regulatory compliance, corporate citizenship, or some other key value.

It’s often tempting to pack as many technical details as possible into a business communication.  But when your readers are senior managers, that’s a temptation to avoid. The granular details of features and functionality should be reserved for separate documents, and those longer materials should be directed to important but lower-level technical decision makers. 

By understanding the crucial distinction between business decision makers and technical decision makers, you can craft appropriate communications to each audience.

Velocity of Read

If time is money, an executive’s time is solid gold.

Business leaders are busy people, so your messaging to them must be concise, to the point, and packed with tangible strategic benefits.  In each piece of communication – whether it is a company website, a magazine article or an industry white paper – focus on a single core message supported by a few relevant supporting concepts.  If you cannot deliver your message in a tight, crisply-worded presentation … your message needs work.

Next, carefully consider the flow of your marcom “storyline”.  Does it deliver an active and unambiguous message that clearly supports the company’s business objectives?  Is the message presented in a way that is logical, understandable and appropriate in tone and phrasing?  Does it offer the value-added insights corporate leaders expect in a piece of high-level communication?

Most executives prefer language that is direct, specific and commonly-understood, even when discussing sophisticated business or technical concepts.  To meet those expectations, eliminate jargon from your communications.  Avoid overly long or convoluted sentences and paragraphs.  Use headlines, sub-headlines and captions to highlight salient points and to give the document a natural, intuitive structure and flow.  Then revisit the draft to eliminate words or formulations that are not clear and precise. 

The result will be a document that is well organized, easy to read, and that delivers the value top managers expect.

The Executive Author

We’ve addressed some of the finer points of writing to an executive readership.  But what about writing for a top business manager? 

Most executives have extensive knowledge and experience, and many are exceptional writers.  Their time, however, is typically far too valuable to spend it pounding out articles, papers or other documents.  That’s why many work with business-oriented “ghost writers” to formulate and draft executive communications. 

To ensure a smooth writing experience – and a quality outcome – here are some guidelines I use when ghost writing for C-level professionals. 

Make diligent preparations before ever sitting down with the executive.  Work closely with the marketing team, project managers and others to gather as much preliminary research as possible.  Ask the team to forward notes, PowerPoint presentations and other relevant materials prior to an interview.  Then conduct additional research as necessary – on the company, its solutions, competition and broader industry environment.

If they are available, it may help to review examples of the executive’s published works to gain a clearer understanding of the person’s style and approach to business communications. 

Based on that initial research, I formulate a basic set of questions to guide the interview, then forward those questions to the executive for review prior to the in-person conversation.  Those questions always include both specific queries relating to the topic at hand, and open-ended questions designed to give the manager the freedom to offer broader observations. 

Also, I always ask executives to describe in explicit terms the tone, message and result they hope to achieve with a particular written document.  Most business managers know what they want to communicate, and by asking for direct and basic guidance, a good writer can help achieve that objective.

The bottom line is:  executives are short on time and long on expectations.  A well-prepared writer can make the best use of their valuable time, while delivering the quality output top managers demand.

Jon Kemp