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?
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.
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:
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!