No Verbal Packing Peanuts – 9 Tips to Speak with Executives

Posted on 10/02/2014

Hands Holding Packing PeanutsMany people get nervous before or during a conversation with an executive. They worry they will say the wrong thing and leave a poor impression. Executives are people, no different than anyone else. They can be quite easy to talk to if you remember a few simple tips.

  • Do your homework.  Know the executive’s current role, background and recent press for their company. If you work for the same company, make sure you are familiar with recent communications and strategies that may shape the conversation.
  • Don’t ask an executive if they remember you. If they do they will likely say so, if not you look either star-struck or arrogant.
  • Do introduce yourself with your full name and role unless you’ve met them many times. Executives meet a lot of people. A thoughtful introduction gives the executive a few seconds to place you in their mental picture of “who’s who in the zoo”.  You can include the last time or place that you spoke with them such as “Hello [executive]. I’m [name] from the [company or team]. Nice to see you again. We last spoke briefly after your keynote at [event].”
  • Don’t use verbal packing peanuts. Don’t buffer or excessively use adjectives or intro wording – aka verbal packing peanuts – around your message. You will look nervous or like you’re trying to over-impress. Use clear, straightforward, diplomatic language and get to the point.
  • Do learn the language of executives. Executives speak in percentages, relative indexes and timelines. This allows them to avoid confidentiality issues while adding value to the conversation. An executive may say something like “We implemented this solution globally and in our mature markets found improvements ranging from 15-20%. In our high growth markets, however, the results came more slowly at half the speed of the mature markets, but with substantially more impact of 60-70% improvement.” With percentages, relative indexes and timelines, the executive has not given away any confidential hard data, but has provided useful context to the conversation. You should do the same. Everyone is more comfortable with people who speak their language, including executives. If the executive wants more detail, they will ask and of course because you are prepared, you will have the answers.
  • Do apologize ONCE if you make an error and move on. If you misquote a number or source attribution to what you are saying, don’t do the nervous chatter of overly detailed apologies that can tilt into the TMI space. Apologize briefly once; correct the error; then keep the conversation moving. This increases the likelihood the executive will have a positive reflection of your entire conversation versus only remembering your blabbering apology.
  • Don’t ask for an introduction to their network without a clear outcome. Vague requests such as “I love technology and want to work for a big software company. Can you make some introductions for me?” are not requests likely to land well. Instead try “I am looking to grow my enterprise technical sales skills and am considering a move to a large software company. Do you know anyone who has successfully made a transition like this that might share their lessons-learned?” This latter request clarifies what you are trying to accomplish and has a specific request for information which is much more likely to receive a positive response.
  • Don’t ask an executive to be a mentor unless you have a specific underlying request. Similar to the introduction trap above, a general “Will you mentor me?” question is vague and likely to fall flat. Instead, if you are looking for a mentor for a specific skill or career advice then say so. For example you could say “I admire how you moved from the technology industry to financial services. I’m looking to change industries and would value your perspective on my plan. Could we meet for coffee or via phone for a short chat? Your perspective would be very helpful.”
  • Do have a good closing. Complete your conversation by briefly thanking them for their time, insights or feedback, etc. Add your follow up items and timelines that you will complete them. Make sure to clarify any open items before you leave. A good closing may go something like this: “[executive], thank you for your perspectives on this partner opportunity. I’ll revise the business plan per your feedback by Friday. Should I include anyone else on the distribution for the revised plan?”

Speaking well with an executive is easy if you follow a few tips. Please add on with your favorite advice or experience as well.