How to Write for the C-Suite

In my last post, I wrote about a mistake that too many companies make: defining the audience for their thought leadership as “all senior executives.” When you define your audience too broadly, you risk appealing to no one because your insights will be too generic. You must be specific about who your audience is to provide the kind of in-depth perspective that will impress them.

But what if you want to reach a higher-level audience? What if you’re doing a perfectly fine job developing content that appeals to mid-level managers in a specific field, but your business goals require getting the attention of those with more buying power?

That’s a different challenge and one that I recently addressed for a client while assessing the quality and focus of their thought leadership content. This company wants to double its annual revenue in three to five years and needs to adjust its content marketing strategy accordingly.

To boost sales, the executive team wants to increase the size of the company’s client engagements. They’ve noticed that when they sell their services to higher-level executives within an organization, the deals are bigger and last longer. And because those executives have greater decision-making authority, they can sign on the dotted line faster.

But for this company, selling to top executives is the exception, not the rule. Its primary buyers are mid-level managers. So, the question became, “How do we create content that gets the attention of the C-suite?”

The answer is the same for anyone who wants a C-level readership. Top executives will only read articles about topics they care about, written in their language, that appear in the publications they read. This is true of all audiences, but it’s especially true for high-level executives with limited time and looming targets. To get their attention, you must do three things:

1. Define the problem you solve in quantifiable business terms.

When I started reviewing the client’s content, I immediately noticed a challenge. They had done work for many big companies, including Costco, Ernst & Young, and AT&T Wireless. That’s great — name recognition is important. But when they described the types of problems they solved for these companies, they cited things like “lack of transparency” and “misaligned teams.”

Neither of these issues is going to cause sleepless nights for C-level executives whose performance is measured against hard metrics such as revenue growth, delivery times, and employee engagement. To get their attention, we would need to delve deeper to show that the lack of transparency or misaligned teams were hurting the performance of the business. How do we do that?

Let’s take misaligned teams. A team without a common objective might waste time arguing and duplicating efforts, leading to missed deadlines and cost overruns. Team members could become burned out from the power struggles and working long hours to compensate for the inefficiency of the group. And they could deliver a result that didn’t meet the expectations of their superiors or customers.

Now we’re talking about bottom-line problems, things like lost time, money, talent and productivity that top executives really care about. So, start there, I told the client. And be as specific as you can about the negative impact of these factors on the business, such as, “the team’s misalignment put the project six months behind and $150,000 over budget.”

2. Speak their language.

Just as C-level executives are unlikely to say, “You had me at lack of transparency,” they’re not going to struggle through an article or research report filled with buzzwords and business terms that aren’t their own. When you talk about how your solution helps project teams “enrich their group identity” and “organically encompass their differences,” they will lose patience and tune out.

That’s because you are using what one of my favorite career advisors, Patty Azzarello, calls your “inside voice” – the acronyms, jargon and project names of your specialty, not theirs. In her recent workshop, “Mastering Executive Communications,” Patty explained the importance of developing your “outside voice,” the language that executives use to describe the things they care about. And what are those things? According to Gartner surveys, they include:

  • Increasing enterprise growth
  • Delivering operational results
  • Reducing enterprise costs
  • Attracting and retaining new customers
  • Creating new products and services

It’s our job to put our topics or solutions in the context of these buckets. For most of us, this doesn’t come naturally. We’re not used to considering our passions or convictions from another person’s perspective. We’re too busy arguing the validity of our own perspective. But doing so is critical.

For example, if you’re a social media expert who wants to sell a new solution to the C-suite, you’re unlikely to be successful if you focus on educating them about the importance of social media. If you take the approach that you’re going to explain how they can “attract and retain new customers using social media,” they are more likely to listen.

3. Get published in the periodicals they read.

Posting your thought leadership articles and reports on your company website in hopes that someone important will stumble upon your brilliance isn’t likely to get you noticed. Neither is sending out a few press releases or email newsletters. One of the best ways to attract the audience you want is to get published in third-party publications. And if your goal is the C-suite, the more prestigious, the better.

To get published in business journals that top executives read, such as the Harvard Business Review and Forbes, it’s not enough to speak their language. That’s a good start, but the editors at these publications have rigorous standards. The Harvard Business Review, for example, accepts less than 10% of submissions.

To be among that 10%, your idea or perspective must also be new, interesting, and useful. That requires having a strong point of view backed by data and examples that demonstrate your proposed solution produces real results. And it can’t be something that many have proposed already.

Talk about a challenge. The good news is you have a much better chance of saying something new, interesting, and useful if you approach your ideas from the vantage point of your audience, which in this case is the C-suite.

It may sound like common sense, but we so often forget it.

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