A Very Revealing 5-Minute Exercise

A CEO was working with me to polish his leadership communication skills—to meet his goal of being promoted to chairman.

One of the issues that confounded him was being concise during presentations. We decided to take a novel approach.

This involved giving him a few paragraphs of information on an unfamiliar topic. He would have a few minutes to read this. Then he would tell me about it, and we’d discuss what he felt and I saw.

This is a smart leader with a penchant for details. His initial attempts involved sticking to the order of the information presented—sometimes actually reading it to me—and trying to wedge in everything he could. That made his attempts long-winded, and both of us were worn out by the time he finished speaking.

It Starts with Your Personality

Each executive who does this with me reflects her or his own personality in tackling this exercise. You saw what can happen with an analytical leader. Here’s what I see from the other three types:

  • The driven ones are usually too short and abrupt, leaving out key ideas that too often rob the meaning and color from the information
  • The expressive ones often get side-tracked as they relate the information to things that have happened to them, or struggle and get impatient if they can’t find a way to relate to what they’re sharing
  • The amiable ones frequently watch me closely to get external cues on their performance, or ask throughout if they’re being clear or how I think they’re doing

Begin with Your Audience Instead

When we’re asked to present, often it feels as if it’s all about our performance: what we say or do. The most effective leaders know that it’s about the people they’re trying to reach.

This means these executives 1) understand their default approach to sharing information and 2) adjust this to increase the chances they’ll better connect with their audience.

The analytical leader asked me for a system he could apply to this exercise. Because I’m a neuroscience nerd—and know that people can only hold three ideas in their short-term memory—I suggested this format:

  1. Begin with a topic statement—to let people know what you’re talking about. Make this as interesting or applicable as possible to grab people’s attention.
  2. Share the three most important points. That requires prioritizing what you’re reading and dropping ideas that are “too much” or tangential.
  3. Summarize what you shared. (You may stop here.)
  4. If appropriate, close with a call to action on what to do next.

 What This and Other Leaders Learn

 The CEO actually got hooked on this approach and asked to do it often. He and other executives have shared these big takeaways:

  •  Have a sense of what the audience knows and doesn’t, and adjust what you share based on this.
  • Not all information is created equal. Focus on the things that are most important to the people you’re trying to reach. That means you may want to change the order of how you present the points.
  • When possible, use your own words rather than replaying what’s written—but without changing the meaning. That will make the result sound more human (like you) than institutional.


Ready to try this yourself? Click this link and you’ll get two exercises. Then do this:

  1. Buddy up with someone you trust.
  2. Both of you read this at the same time. Give yourself no more than four minutes.
  3. Present the information to your buddy.
  4. Listen for valuable feedback.
  5. Explain how this felt for you and what you learned.
  6. Then do it again to implement those changes (while keeping the things that worked well).
  7. Ask your buddy for any final feedback.
  8. Write two lists: a) the things you did well and b) the things you’ll focus on and improve.

 Let me know what you get from this!