Are you more of a talker or a listener?

One of the things I find fascinating about geek culture is that a lot of the conversations are “won” by the person who talks the most. Geeks are generally running a meritocracy, and the way that you earn merit points is by making the most compelling argument for what you believe, making sure you get the airtime to express it in a group, arguing in circles around your detractors, proving you’re the smartest, and getting the team to implement your idea.

That strategy will make you pretty successful as you are growing up through the ranks of geekdom. Other geeks will model it for you, and to be a successful geek, you will have to do it really well.

If you want to become a CEO, it is something you will have to partially unlearn. I say partially, because of course you will always have this technique in your back pocket, in case you run into someone at a conference that you want to out-geek. Don’t worry, you’ll always have this arrow in your quiver!

However, once you move into the ranks of CEOs, or even CTO/CIOs, you will need to adjust your speaking strategy. What was once a superpower will become a stumbling block. Because once you have a fair amount of executive power, you don’t have to dominate the conversation to get your way.

So, how will your conversational style change? You will listen MORE than you will speak, and you will ask lots of questions.

Your skill of deciding what direction you want a conversation to go in will still be quite useful. You don’t want to end up off in the weeds, and especially not the weeds of someone else’s choosing.

As a CxO, a lot of time you should be gathering information to make decisions, and developing relationships. You cannot doing either of these things while you are talking. Therefore, you are thinking about what you want to know, and where you want the conversation to go, and you are asking questions that help you (a) learn about other people and what they believe, and (b) help you make better decisions. Think of something you want to know about, ask the question, and let the other person talk.

At first it will feel awful to give the floor up to someone else… You will imagine the power draining away onto a puddle on a floor. Take a deep breath, and let them talk anyway.

In a social situation, you will be most comfortable “holding the floor”. You are full of fascinating stories and opinions! However, the point of most social situations at the CxO level is to develop deeper relationships with other people present, and you can’t do that if you are talking the majority of the time. Other people will learn more about you, but you won’t learn much about them, and they will talk away feeling like you don’t find them interesting, or don’t care about them. FAIL!

You can learn a lot from other people’s body language. As a geek, you trained yourself to ignore this – the idea was to dominate the conversation at all costs. Now it’s time to pay attention! When you are telling a story, are people looking directly at you, or looking away? You can tell that someone is bored when they direct their eyes or bodies away from the speaker. If this is happening, it’s a sign that you’ve been talking for too long.

Wrap up your story or point, and shift the focus to someone else by asking them a question. You will be amazed at how this will re-energize the conversation.

Another great way to learn about this is to watch everyone’s body language when someone else is speaking. There you don’t have to hold the floor and watch simultaneously, so it’s easier to learn.

Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.