CEO Speak

The language CEOs use is especially important in the current era of heightened corporate accountability. Increasingly, companies and their CEOs are subject to higher levels of scrutiny by audit committees, regulatory authorities, journalists, and the public. Many CEOs strive to attain legitimacy through political correctness and virtue signaling. All of this renders a compelling case for the need to analyze CEO-speak in order to understand how CEOs make sense of the world and to appreciate why the corporations they lead behave as they do.

Many CEOs exploit the possibilities of language opportunistically. For example, they strategically place negative and positive words in their written communications to elicit more positive perceptions by readers. Further, CEOs often use language to exude personal commitment and authenticity and to portray a close relationship with followers. Transformational leaders, for example, use inspirational communications to generate high expectations and sacrifices by followers. Their language aims to convince followers that the CEO-leader possesses extraordinary insight to the economic, social, and political situation confronting the organization, can diagnose organizational and societal ailments accurately, prescribe effective treatments, and transform an organization beneficially.

CEOs “work with words. They enact leadership largely (though not exclusively) through language. CEOs’ letters to shareholders can help them to construct corporate culture and a tone at the top. Their words help them to chart the agenda they expect all persons connected with the company to follow. Their words define the values to which the company will aspire and can be chosen in a way that will help convince all stakeholders of the CEO’s virtues.

Some FTSE 100 companies used common language to express a tone of cocky confidence in their (alleged) outstanding performance in a competitive, globalized business environment. Such a tone goes beyond simply a matter-of-fact reporting of success or expressing simple pride in achievement. It extends into smugness and self-glorification along with disdain for the efforts of competitors. Generally, there was no trace of humility. Rather, there was a narcissistic air of “look at me. Look how great I am.”

Twitter is an unmediated, almost real-time, personal connection directly between a CEO and a network of followers. Twitter allows CEOs to directly communicate with an intended audience without any filtering or sanitizing of their message by journalists or other intermediaries inside or outside the company. Thus, many tweets emanate from the mind of the CEO “without revision or reflection.”14 They constitute “a positive means for CEOs to engage in frank dialogue.”

Twitter can widen the number of readers of CEO-speak because it provides an additional avenue for CEOs to share information, interact with message recipients, air opinions, and share sentiments about an event.16 Tweets from the personal “Twitter handle” (address) of a CEO can present the thoughts of an “authentic” or a “real” CEO and not the thoughts of a CEO who has been “lawyered up and filtered down.” In composing a tweet, a CEO has an opportunity “to construct an authentic self, mediated through … words, punctuation, images, filters, [and] emojis.” Thus, a CEO’s tweeting can obviate much of the spin-fatigue, skepticism, and suspicion the public frequently holds toward corporate communications.

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