Speaking Skills at C-Level
What you can learn from people at the top
Doubts Happen at Every Level
Camila was a partner in an architecture firm who was totally happy with her position and the company. She found me to improve her English speaking skills because it was something she had always wanted to do but had spent the majority of her career focused on her career. She knew there were times she wasn’t being understood easily by the looks on people’s faces when she was speaking. She described the unsettling feeling she got when she was speaking about something she was very confident about and she saw the looks of concentration on the listeners’ faces. She didn’t know what parts of what she was saying they understood and what parts they didn’t. Should she repeat? How much? If she asked if there were any questions and nobody asked one, did that mean they understood everything or they didn’t understand and didn’t know what to ask?
This is what we worked on - improving her English speaking skills so it would remove the doubt she had about how well her listeners were receiving her message and ultimately, remove the looks of concentration on listeners’ faces so she could focus on delivering her message without distracting thoughts.
C-Level? Sea Level?
I didn’t know what “C-level” meant when I first left teaching to start my own business. I had been in academia my whole life either as a student or a professor. The whole corporate scene was outside of my world. In fact, when I heard it before I saw it, my mind thought of “sea level” which is the only way I’d ever heard it used. I started working with people with titles that were abbreviations that I had to learn. I knew CEO (chief executive officer), but that was about it. I learned about CFO (chief financial officer), CTO (chief technical officer), and CMO (chief medical officer). When people at this stage of their career choose to work with me, it’s usually when they have worked for years in their field, achieved a level of professional success, and now have the time, money, and desire to go back and strengthen their speaking skills that they first thought weren’t so important or thought were good enough to not become an issue.
If an accent wasn’t an issue that held them back throughout their career, why start working on it at such a high level? For some people, there are reasons similar to getting a promotion - a change in position brings a whole new level of communication responsibilities. Some people start thinking that what got them to a C-level may not keep them at a C-level. Even when people have held a high position for a long time, they know how important communicating clearly is and will do what it takes to continue to improve. They may answer to a board of directors, represent the company in important meetings and mergers, present at industry-defining conferences, speak to and for the whole company - all types of speaking situations where the level of risk is much higher for miscommunication.
I’ll Tell You What Others Won’t
It may not be the wrong pronunciation that breaks a deal, but it could be embarrassing if a mispronunciation created a funny or obscene word in a formal situation. If people didn’t understand that it was unintentional, then it could be perceived as disrespectful which was not the impression that was intended. Beyond pronunciation, it could be how something was said that is perceived in a completely different way than it was intended. Intonation carries the most meaning in English so emphasizing the wrong word can change the meaning of the sentence. The tone of what was said could be misinterpreted as angry when it’s not. How something is said by creating a change in pitch (intonation) carries a lot of weight in English. The unfortunate part is that these types of misunderstanding usually go by without being addressed, things just go wrong and the speaker doesn’t know why. This is what I do, I make people aware of these invisible errors so they can identify them and avoid them. I am that person who will tell them what nobody else will tell them but they really want to know.
I have had the best experience of witnessing how C-level people think and work by doing individual instruction with them. I describe it as having a front row seat to observe successful people’s habits. What they have in common is that they arrive prepared with notepads or iPads, they turn off their phones, they actively listen and ask questions, and they immediately try to produce new sounds without me having to ask them to repeat or try it. This is a big deal because it can feel uncomfortable to try to speak in a different way when you’re actually speaking words and sentences, but to imitate and repeat a specific sound that doesn't have meaning on its own is even more unnatural and uncomfortable. They jump in and do it. They are not shy or embarrassed or holding back, they really give it their full attention and effort.
Another thing they all have in common is taking notes and interpreting the new information into their own analogies and language, even if that is the language of the field they work in, e.g., engineering). I’ve had mechanical engineers describe the speech production process as a series of lifts, pumps, and valves and it made total sense but I had never imagined it that way. Once someone can absorb a concept so well that they can teach it to you through their own perspective, using the vocabulary and concepts they know very well, you know they truly understand. That’s a step towards feeling more comfortable with what’s required to make changes to speech, to analyze their own speech to identify errors, and know how to make corrections. It’s not a “tell me what to do” mindset. It’s a “help me understand” mindset that they can build upon forever.
What you can learn from C-Level clients who are improving their speaking skills.
Turn off your phone, alarms, or distractions when learning and practicing.
Ask to record the meeting by audio or video.
Arrive prepared to take note in any format you prefer, paper, digital, voice notes.
Take notes in any or all languages you know that help you express and remember the information.
Actively listen, ask questions, paraphrase the information you just heard.
Make analogies for speech that fit into your area of expertise.
Imitate the sounds and words as soon as you hear them, don’t wait to be asked to repeat.
Imitate the sounds and words as many times as it takes to feel like you can hear and feel the difference.