Executive Presence: What’s Your “Talk Track”?

Guest post from Elizabeth Freedman (originally published 12/6/2012 on the Bates Communication blog). Elizabeth is one of the instructors in our upcoming UNH Woman’s Leadership Development program.

In my work as an executive coach, I meet at least once a
month with each of my coaching clients. I often talk to them on the phone and
exchange emails with them as we work on their real-time business challenges.

So what happens in those conversations? Recurring themes
start to come up. I find that many leaders have a “talk track” of words and
phrases that they use all the time—without always being aware of the impact.
For better or worse, this talk track ends up becoming part of their executive
presence and their brand as a leader.

One of my clients had a talk track for many years that
led to a reputation for negativity. In one meeting alone, I noticed that he had
described about ten different work experiences as “nightmares.” Strong word! So
we talked about this talk track. And the next time I heard him lapse into that
way of talking, I decided to delve into it. “What I just heard from you was an
example of that ‘talk track’ we’ve talked about,” I said. “So let’s talk about
this. You say it was a ‘nightmare.’ Okay—why do you call it a
nightmare?”

The upshot was that he had made a sales presentation but
didn’t get the deal. I said, “Let’s use accurate language to describe the situation.”
Was it a nightmare? No. Maybe it was a disappointment. Maybe he could have
said, “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the deal” or “They decided to go with
another vendor” and state why, objectively. My goal was to get him to stop
“catastrophizing” when something didn’t work out.

This leader didn’t want to be defined by that negative
“talk track” anymore. So I told him that the only way to do that is to turn up
the volume on a very different talk track—one that captures the brand and
presence that you want to project.

I’ve had clients who always talked about how difficult
or challenging or complex things seemed to them. You’ve
probably had a boss or colleague with any number of talk-track themes:

  • “I’m
    so exhausted/overwhelmed/unhappy/unappreciated….”
  • “Everyone
    here is useless/stupid/incompetent….”
  • “It’s
    such a difficult environment/project/client/travel schedule…”
  • “That
    will never work/We won’t get that deal/It’s a dumb idea/What were they
    thinking?”

Often people aren’t even aware of how much they harp on a
conversational theme and how negatively this lack of executive presence is
affecting their professional brand. So what can you do to make sure your talk
track is working for you and not against you as a leader? Take these four
steps:

1. Identify your talk-track themes.

What are the words and phrases that you find yourself
constantly using in conversations at work? Write down the things you seem to
say almost every day—or think about what themes come up all the time for
you in conversation at work or elsewhere.

2. Consider the impact of your talk track.

As a leader, your words carry more weight than others.
You’re setting the tone for your team or division or organization. Whether that
tone is absurdly optimistic, cynical, critical, upbeat, energized, or overly
emotional, it’s going to be the model for others. Make sure that your talk
track is consistent with the values and behaviors you want to drive.

3. Challenge the reality of your talk track.

How accurate is your talk track? Do you have a natural
tendency to see the part of the glass that’s empty? How do you respond to
setbacks? Do you gloss over the pain? Do you make a mountain out of a molehill?
It’s crucial for leaders to be balanced, objective, and real about what’s
happening. Your language choices need to reflect that.

4. Consider what you could say differently.

It’s easy to lapse into your talk track. When you catch
yourself saying the same old things, try to catch yourself as if an alarm was
going off. Can you find another way to say it—something that’s consistent with
the brand and presence you want to project.

Don’t get me wrong. Leaders do need to be “real” about
challenges and setbacks, and a somber tone may be appropriate and even helpful
at times. The goal is to become more aware of your talk track and what it’s
doing for you and others. As a leader, people take their cues from you. Before
you know it, your talk track can dominate or drive the culture.

Changing your talk track is a challenge. Our ways of
talking and viewing the world are pretty ingrained through several decades of
life experiences. But change is also very possible. Pump up the volume on a
more positive talk track for the holidays, and your presence will be viewed as
a gift.

Elizabeth Freedman is an executive coach and senior
communications consultant with Bates Communications. She spent over 15 years as
a global brand and marketing consultant, working with large companies in the
financial services, technology and consumer products industries on behalf of
the global consulting firms Accenture and marchFIRST, as well as in her private
coaching and consulting practice. Elizabeth enjoys working closely with her
clients to help them lead, persuade, and strategically influence their
stakeholders.