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I’ve written about this before, and it’s my bread and butter and the clients I’ve been working with my entire professional life: how to speak like a CEO. Even if you are one already or have been for years. This blog still applies. And when I say speak I do not mean talk, or act, or give off the impression of being one. I mean speak. Of course, one’s voice—how one speaks and talks to others—involves more than only the voice. So this blog will touch on other aspects of how to communicate like a CEO—aspects that involve acting and talking and giving off the impression of being a CEO. But I am really focusing in—trying to get you, the reader, the aspiring CEO, or the CEO who’s been a CEO for some time now—to learn how to speak like a Chief Executive.

Most of what I tell people comes down to common sense. So I will first dispense with these seemingly obvious tips:

  • Keep your speaking tone neutral. Don’t get “too”: stay passionate but not too excited; intensity is fine, but overzealous can be off putting; and if you tend to get emotional (not at all a bad thing, not even for a CEO), don’t get weepy or depressingly sad or worked up to the point of veins popping if something upsets you (and if any of those emotions hit home in this regard: work on releasing those tendencies in front of a mirror, with a therapist, with your PR or HR rep—before being in a room full of your fellow executives)
  • Make eye contact—and this goes for everyone if it’s at, say, a board meeting or with a room with fewer than 20 or so people; and if it’s for a speech, with more than 20 people, just make sure to look up and make eye contact with a different person every now and then and don’t feel compelled to shake hands “eye wise” with every person there.
  • Self-deprecation and well-placed humor can be good, but try to avoid the “humblebrag”—people will pick up on it for what it is, and could be turned off, and not see you as one of them but as someone faking it and trying to come off as a regular Joe.
  • Know what you’re going to say and know what you want to say. This is where practicing ahead of time what you want to say and how to say it pays off in spades.
  • Do what so many people are rightfully advising their CEOs and CFOs and other C-suite execs to do nowadays: listen actively. Or, to reiterate a piece of advice from Ryan Crosby, professor of military science at the Rochester Institute of Technology: “Give the other person the opportunity to provide their concerns, and state your respect for their position. Listen; don’t just reload for your next volley of ideas.”

Pretty good advice. And again: very common sensical. And here’s more, from Christina Luconi, the Chief People Officer at Rapid 7, a cybersecurity firm: read your audience. Stick to the script, but don’t always stay with it if you look out onto a sea of bored or distracted faces. Reengage with a face that looks friendly; regroup, go off script—tell an anecdote that backs up what you’re speaking about. Sometimes, interrupting your own rhythm can bring your listeners back into the fold.


And to this last point: know your audience. For example, if I were to write a story about speaking like a leader but it was for Sports Illustrated, how would I do that? Would I just talk about speaking in public? Would I only use examples based on the CEOs and venture capitalists I’ve trained? Or might I instead—knowing this would be for a magazine that’s all about sports—start off with a story about my time advising Jerry (Jerrah) Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and how I showed him where and when to lean into his Arkansas drawl? Similarly, if you’re scheduled to talk to a crowd of automakers but your background is safety, find some anecdote about safety that you can then apply to cars. (Not at all difficult, I would imagine.) Suddenly, you’ll no doubt discover, that story about accidents involving self-driving cars becomes much more relevant to that audience. And you’re still in your own wheelhouse as well. Even better, you’re starting off with a story, too. Always a great way to reel in an audience.


But there are two other points to make. First the truism: great leaders speak like leaders. One: duh. Two: well, not always. But most of the time, yes.


So how is it that these great leaders speak like great leaders?


Three things stand out above all others:

  • Simplicity (which leads to clarity)
  • Powerful language (and beginning and ending your talk with power or with something—an image, a quote, an anecdote—that has power)
  • Stick to your point—never dilute what you most want to convey

Again: common sense. But these are also tools to use when speaking, when wanting to speak like a leader and/or a CEO. 

As Steve Jobs said: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”


And powerful language doesn’t mean words that are all about meat and potatoes, or imagistic words or phrases centered around dominance. Powerful language circles back to the above: to clarity. To simplicity. And to my next point, which is: do not water down what it is you are saying. Don’t shillyshally. Don’t beat around the bush. Stick to your point. (And, unlike Bankman-Fried, do not use the word “like” with any amount of frequency—and try not to use it at all.)

Speaking like a leader means instilling trust among others in you and in what you are wanting to do and what you’re trying to get others to do as well. And whether you’re a CEO, a CFO, a Chief People Officer or just starting out in the mailroom (if there are such rooms anymore), speaking like a CEO—being able to, and knowing how to, and delivering in that way—is not only helpful in your professional life but it will help you in your personal life as well.