by Maryfran Johnson

5 Key Audience Questions to Help You “Read the Room”

Nov 11, 2009

How great communicators enhance their "executive presence" and get their messages across.

My Irish grandmother was fond of quoting a line from a Robert Burns’ poem about having “the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as ithers see us.” For years I thought she was talking about some leprechaun showing up with a magical mirror (blame that one on Lucky Charms commercials). But one day I finally got it. That combination of self-awareness and understanding how you’re actually coming across to others is quite a powerful communication tool. Developing this skill can also give you the gift of “executive presence,” whether you’re on a stage, in a board meeting or just one-on-one with a colleague.

“Executive presence is something people often want more of, but have no idea how to obtain,” says Carol Keers, coauthor with Thomas Mungavan of Seeing Yourself As Others Do: Authentic Executive Presence at Any Stage of Your Career. Keers and Mungavan are vice president and president, respectively, of a Minnesota-based executive coaching firm called Change Masters.

While people often think of “executive presence” as some mystical combination of strong personality, commanding stature and confident demeanor, the core skill is more about conveying authenticity. “Executive presence needs to be authentic to be believed and respected,” Keers says. “Internal authenticity is meaning what you say. External authenticity is saying what you mean.”

Where CIOs seem to fall short is in getting their messages across with the right mixture of intensity and personal engagement, she says. “We hear lots of facts, but not a lot of excitement.” CIOs may have “absolutely great stories to tell,” she adds, “but when you listen to their delivery, you’d think they were reading an obituary.”

That somber, low-key delivery was an issue for CIO Frits de Vroet, a soft-spoken Dutchman whose boss at DHL Logistics suggested he amp up his executive presence with some coaching from Change Masters. He learned to raise his voice a bit and to smile more often when engaging with others.

“I’m passionate about what I do, but I may not exhibit it enough and then people think I’m not really interested,” says de Vroet, now CIO for a global resources company in Australia. “To make this work, you have to play outside your comfort zone. The things you change in your behavior seem minor to others, but to you they feel like a major step.”

In order to fine-tune your own approach toward “relationship awareness,” Keers recommends a technique called “Other Person’s Point Of View” (OPPOV). By asking yourself these five questions—three about your audience and two about you—you can recalibrate your message to better suit the audience:

    1. What are they rewarded for? Are your listeners being paid to generate revenue, keep operations running or grow market share?

    2. What are they motivated by? What are their professional/personal likes and dislikes? Are they after promotions, peer respect, greater job satisfaction?

    3. What are they afraid of? Looking foolish, getting fired, being ignored by the executive board?

    4. What am I doing to make things worse? Be honest now: How is IT having a negative impact on them? Are you using budget dollars in ways they don’t understand?

    5. What could I do to make things better? What positive changes could you could be making? What do you have to offer them?

De Vroet can vouch for how well this works. “The application of this OPPOV helps you understand the audience better and position what you’re going to say,” he says. “You don’t change the way you feel or believe, it’s more about the way you communicate those messages.”

Maryfran Johnson is CIO magazine’s editor in chief. Reach her at

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