Are You Fluent in Business?

Are You Fluent in Business?

If you want to advise senior corporate leaders, you need to speak the language of business. Otherwise, your ideas won’t get traction; your client will give you a polite nod and then move on.

When executives evaluate advice, they listen carefully to the person’s choice of language. Does the person talk about business like they learned it in a classroom, or with a confidence developed over years of practical experience? Executives listen for cues that reveal level of experience, assumptions, and blind spots.

Most thought leaders have spent the majority of their careers outside the corporate environment. Like modern-day Henry David Thoreaus, they head “into the woods” so that they can think deliberately and create content. And that’s great! …until you have a lunch meeting with the head of sales for a Global 100 organization. What are you going to say?

Are you fluent in business?

Many thought leaders act like tourists visiting a foreign country. They rely on what they learned years ago, or they cram for a few hours to learn key phrases. Either way, they hope it will be enough. When an underprepared tourist makes a gaffe, it creates an awkward moment at the café or train station. For a thought leader working with global organizations, the stakes are far higher: eroded credibility and lost opportunities.

It’s important to candidly evaluate your ability to “speak business” with senior executives. In general, there are three types of fluency: executive fluency; academic proficiency; and tourist’s hesitancy.

Executive Fluency

Executive fluency can only be developed through years (often decades) of applied practice. These are experienced C-level executives; corporate employees who report directly to senior leadership; and seasoned consultants who have led significant C-level client initiatives. Most executives retain traces of their original area of expertise—such as marketing or sales—but years in leadership have given them a high degree of comfort.

Academic Proficiency

Academics—such as MBA faculty—are often very familiar with the language of business. They’re widely read and know technical jargon as well as the current business news and trends. However, most academics haven’t had to manage a team or own a P&L statement. Therefore, when they talk business, they know the language—but they speak with a distinct “academic accent.”

Tourist’s Hesitancy

More than a few thought leaders have a “tourist-like” hesitancy when it comes to speaking the language of business with senior executives. Most thought leaders haven’t spent much time working day-to-day with the senior executives who lead large organizations. As a visitor, it takes longer for you to decode jargon or shape your thoughts in a way that will make sense to a senior leader.

In my experience, about eighty percent of thought leaders speak business with a “tourist’s hesitancy.” When they visit the corporate boardroom or talk with a senior executive, they can sound stilted or unsure. It’s not only what you say but how you say it that signals how well you understand business.

If you’re a typical thought leader, you’ll likely feel outside of your comfort zone when you travel into the corporate world. There’s no quick solution—a Rosetta stone or magical translator earbuds—that will allow you to feign business fluency.

But that’s no reason to despair. None of us — not even the most seasoned executives — were born native business speakers. No one’s first words were “muda” or “EBITDA.” This language is one we all have to learn. So, if you’ve decided to learn to speak BSL (“business as a second language”) there’s hope for you!

Here are a few tips to incorporate into your regular thought leadership routine:

  • Read general business publications (articles and books);
  • Listen to podcasts which discuss business topics outside of your expertise;
  • Have lunch and coffee with people who speak business more fluently than you do;
  • Get advice from businesspeople whose expertise doesn’t overlap with your own; and
  • Surround yourself with colleagues and advisors who speak business fluently.

If you want to be relevant to senior leaders, you need to understand their language. Therefore, to be an effective thought leader, you must make a commitment to study and use the language of business. The transformation won’t happen overnight, so stop trying to cram like a student before final exams. Learn the details. Study the signals. It will take time, but you can make your ideas more widely-adopted by increasing your fluency in the language of business!

Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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