Communicating Risk to Any Audience

Jared Wade


May 7, 2013


Risk managers aren’t known for their ability to captivate a crowd. They shine behind closed doors, running the numbers on countless scenarios and planning for the unforeseen. But when it comes time to communicate the upside and downside of any decision, their message can fall on deaf ears.

It doesn’t have to, according to Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins. Authors of the new book Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, Su and Wilkins are executive coaches who have taught even meek, introverted Excel masters to find a way to reach jet-setting, millionaire executives in power suits.

We recently sat down with Su and Wilkins to explore how risk professionals can become more empowered communicators, even if it isn’t a skill they were born with.

own the roomRM: What are the most common problems people have communicating with colleagues?

Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins: They just don’t listen. To effectively communicate, you have to be able to understand where others are coming from, what is top of mind for them, what keeps them up at night. You can only understand what is making others tick by listening to what they say.

By listening, people can mitigate a second common problem: they don’t frame their message in a way that is relevant to others. This is the classic “what’s in it for them” adage. If you can’t make your message relevant to others, it makes it that much harder to influence them.

A third problem is that people don’t know how to state their point of view in a clear, concise way. Too many times, individuals share their perspective by rambling about data, analysis or processes for how they got to an answer rather than stating their conclusion up front in a tight, pithy way. We often tell people, if you want to communicate with confidence, add structure to your messaging. Be clear on your message. State it up front, and support it with two to three critical data points rather than an ongoing monologue.

How do the best executives communicate risk to those they lead? 

The ability to communicate risk is a critical leadership skill for all executives—not just those in risk management roles. And those who do it exceptionally well do a few things in particular.

First, they know how to communicate the right amount of information at the right level. For example, if they are communicating risk to other executives—or even to someone more senior—they frame it as part of the overall business context. If they are communicating to staff, they frame the risk in terms of implications for the critical activities and impact on the group’s day-to-day work.

Executives who communicate risk well are also able to offer a line of sight. They not only communicate the risk, but they also clearly articulate the “so what?” of the risk and the possible pathways forward. In essence, they don’t just raise the flag around the risk; they also bring a perspective on how to lower the flag.

Lastly, exceptional executive communicators about risk are multi-lingual—they can speak data, and they can speak business. While they are well versed in the numbers, the distinct value they bring in communicating is bridging their knowledge of the data to the overall business context. We like to think of these folks as being led from the perspective of “what’s good for the enterprise” first and foremost rather than “what’s good for my risk function.”

Risk managers tend to be analytical and involved in technical work. Some great CEOs and leaders, like Bill Gates, who you call a self-proclaimed introvert, are the same way. How does someone who may not be programmed to enter a room with a “signature voice” begin to cultivate that ability?

Over the years, we have worked with hundreds of leaders who “grew up” in technical worlds: risk managers, scientists, economists. And they all carry this same assumption that someone who is an introvert or technically oriented can’t “own the room.”

The good news is that we’ve worked hard to debunk the myth that having an effective leadership presence, your “signature voice,” means being extroverted, gregarious and that it’s something one is born with. This is simply untrue. Cultivating your presence requires you to leverage the technical abilities you bring to the table while also rounding out your communication repertoire. We suggest that all individuals, no matter what level, leverage three areas to more deeply build their presence: mind-set (how you think about yourself), communication skills (what you say) and physical cues (what your non-verbals say). By being able to look at all three areas, anyone—introvert and extroverts alike—can build an authentic presence that is truly their voice.

Al Gore is a technocrat who learned to talk directly with the public after he left politics. Are there lessons risk managers can learn from his public transformation?

Al Gore is a great example of a leader who transformed from the “inside-out.” Rather than spending time trying to mimic Bill Clinton or puppet someone else, he connected to a cause he really cared about and had conviction for. Audiences could see that and resonate with it.

Like Gore, technical managers risk being perceived by others as aloof, out of touch, robotic or unable to relate to the business. Yet, our clients who find themselves in this position are quite convicted. The problem is there is a mismatch between their belief in their message and their delivery. There is incredible integrity in the work that goes into risk analyses, assessments and priorities. A key lesson from Gore then is to tap into that authentic conviction and purpose that underlies something like the risk management work you do. Allow that conviction to help you bring greater energy and enthusiasm to your message.

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and a former editor of Risk Management.