Build Better Communications, Practice Being Present

How you can recognize and cultivate intangible skills to be a better AE.

By Jerry Matthews

The ability to effectively communicate and confidently present yourself are valuable skills in advancing your AE career. Whether the audience is the general public or your members and directors, achieving the proper impact through communications and presence positions you as a competent CEO.

This is the fourth in a series exploring intangible skills of great CEOs. The 10 intan­gible skills are actually five mirror-image pairs that are exhibited differently by two CEOs. In this column, I discuss the intangible skill pair of communication and presence.

What is the skill of communication?

CEOs with the skill of communication can deliver information, feelings, or thoughts effectively and forcefully to create a desired effect. They use writing, speaking, and visual images to advance the message.

Communication is a fundamental skill. No matter how talented the CEO may be in strategizing, managing, and innovative thought, the organization demands that plans and ideas are represented well to those who must be influenced. Since communication involves a variety of tools—writing, speaking, influencing—the successful CEO must process all these capabilities.

A good communicator’s tool belt

CEOs serious about the trajectory of their careers focus on speaking effectively in any setting. They know good speakers are perceived to be top CEOs because they project a strong personality, present effective positions, and outline a course of action.

From a personal and association standpoint, the tools for communicating are almost unlimited. Today we can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any format, in any language, on any device. ­Communication has become universal, instantaneous, inexpensive, easy, and expected. So why is it often an elusive skill?

Speaking, writing, and being good at both

Successful CEOs use communication first in two areas: speaking and writing. It is rarely equally balanced; some people excel at speaking and others do well with writing. Some CEOs tend to favor speaking or making presentations over writing, as writing seems to be more passive. However, written communication is a powerful complement to speaking. Regardless, CEOs who success­fully communicate devote considerable energy to both.

All communication will have more impact if linked to significant areas. Jerry Panz, CEO at Wilmington Regional Association of REALTORS® in N.C., advises, “When communicating a direction of the association, it is essential to always keep a strategic connection.” Discuss everyday activities in terms of strategic objectives. He calls it “strategic linked tactics” and it elevates even the most mundane topics to higher levels.

Essentials of transparency

Transparency, which we can also call being honest, open, and direct, is a driving force for CEO communications. To be effective, the “transparency mandate” must permeate the entire organization. This means detailed information is freely available through communications platforms—email, newsletters, website, handouts, videos, podcasts, etc. Great CEOs are clear in the necessity of linking transparency to all communications. To them, communication without transparency is misleading.

The early challenge for new CEOs is to understand this relationship and reject any effort to manipulate the information or mislead, either consciously or unconsciously. With the growing distrust of institutional communications, especially the media, the opportunity to impress is available for the transparent association.

What is presence?

Presence is the ability to draw others to you; it is charisma. Virtually invisible, it is powerfully effective. It is influence through quiet action.

CEOs with presence have an attraction that entices others to engage them in conversation. They project an energy that indicates that they are aware of their surroundings and are open to participate. A quiet confidence defines their demeanor.

I was facilitating the CEO recruiting for a large association, and one event was a social gathering to meet the top candidate. It was fascinating to watch the candidate work the crowd. He walked confidently, surveying the room with his head high. He moved easily from person to person engaging them in topics related directly to them.

The guests were drawn to him. One remarked, “There is just something—I don’t know how to explain it—special about him.” This is the most vivid example of presence I have experienced.

Defining presence: Being confident, sincere, and professional

Great CEOs with presence struggle to define it, but most say it is about being confident, poised, professional, and sincerely interested in the other person. This gave me two areas to pursue.

The first was the positive attitude toward others. Interest in someone else removes the possibility of arrogance. As Janet Kane, CEO of the SouthEast Valley Regional Association of REALTORS® in Arizona, explained, “For me, presence is all about how you make others feel. I try to make them feel warm and welcome, putting out a feeling of inclusivity.”

Practical advice from CEOs with presence includes doing your homework before any event and identifying the interests, hobbies, and business activities of everyone in attendance. Know what their children are doing in sports, schools, or other activities. Personal small talk has more influence than facts or your opinion.

Be aware of your body language

The second defining area of presence is physical presentation. Nonverbal signs influence us all. Stand tall—or sit up in your chair—and engage others with energy and interest. Good posture increases your confidence.

Be calm, even if the exchange is heated. This shows your strength and predictability. Continue to be in the moment, focused on the conversation and individuals. Looking at your phone or around the room breaks the connection and destroys the energy you want to create.

After Kane was hired as CEO, the association held an introductory reception of leaders. The president took her husband to the event and said, “Let me point out our new CEO.” He responded, “I already know who she is. Over there, correct? She has a calm and confident look—quite professional. She is the only CEO in the room.”

CEOs with presence enjoy a perception that allows them to operate successfully in all executive areas. It opens the door to effective presentations and communications, even before the first word is spoken.

How to Acquire Intangible Skills

Set out to cultivate these intangible skills in the same way you’d learn a language or another hard skill, such as event planning or financials.

  • Contact a successful CEO who has that skill and seek advice.
  • Request a successful CEO to mentor or formally coach you.
  • Search the business literature, carefully noting the corporate view bias.
  • Search business videos; TED talks are particularly valuable.
  • Attend AEI, ASAE, and other executive education events.
  • Consider local university advanced management programs.
  • At education events, focus on personal contacts with successful CEOs, not just course content.
  • Join or create peer networks of like-minded executives.
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