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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Decoding CEO-Speak holds a magnifying glass to the powerful words of leaders

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Joel Amernic, Russell Craig

What can we learn from dissecting high-profile CEO memos, speeches and interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic? How can chief executive officers better craft their everyday language to build trust, enhance branding and influence behaviour?

In a new book, Decoding CEO-Speak, Rotman professor Joel Amernic and co-author Russell Craig share how the language of CEOs can be analyzed to reveal its deeper meaning and purpose.

Amernic says CEO-speak is arguably a language genre unto itself — and that chief executives’ words are especially important in the current era of heightened expectations around corporate responsibility.

“Never have CEOs of big companies been more under the spotlight,” says Amernic, a professor of accounting at Rotman whose research interests include the accountability language of corporate leadership. “Their leadership is exercised through what they say and what they write. We don’t analyze their language as much as we should.”

Crafted to be a resource for CEOs and the public relations, media and communications consultants who advise them, and especially for all corporate stakeholders, each chapter is anchored by case study analyses of companies such as News Corporation, Uber, Wells Fargo and Tesla.

The case studies are fashioned to work well in MBA and communications studies courses, and they will also be useful to investors, employees, lobbyists and activists who are keen to understand why CEOs and companies behave the way they do.

With parts of the book written as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in 2020, Craig and Amernic also explore ‘pandemic-speak’, taking examples from CEOs such as Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan Chase) and Arne Sorensen (Marriott).

Some leaders were fiercely criticized during the pandemic, including former U.S. President Donald Trump and Elon Musk (Tesla).

“The best overall communications policy for senior executives in a pandemic is to acknowledge bad news plainly, humbly and calmly. They should present a narrative that includes some aspects of a strategy to survive such an existential crisis,” Craig and Amernic write.

“The potency of CEO-speak can be enhanced by identifying and removing unwarranted ambiguities, buzzwords, clichés and euphemisms,” they add, examining the use — and perhaps overuse — of the word ‘unprecedented’ in 2020 as an example.

Reporting bad news is often difficult and risky, but the authors suggest it can also have the beneficial effect of enhancing a CEO’s credibility and softening any inflated stock market expectations. Even better is if the bad news is followed by a thoughtful plan to alleviate the adversity.

And no matter how experienced or esteemed CEOs are, they should be reflective and diligent critics of their own communications.

“As a community, we need to be ever more conscious that CEO-speak is not merely words that evaporate into thin air. We should monitor CEO-speak and hold people accountable for it — and not just during a global pandemic,” write Craig and Amernic.

Joel H. AmernicJoel Amernic is a professor of accounting at the Rotman School and past editor of Canadian Accounting Perspectives. He is the author and co-author of several books and numerous research and practitioner articles. His main research interests include the accountability language of corporate leadership, financial reporting, management control and management education. 
Russell CraigRussell Craig is a professor of accounting at the Durham University Business School. His main research interests include financial reporting, accounting history, research ethics and the accountability discourse of executives. A major purpose of his research is to expose the folly of unquestioning acceptance of the narrative accountability statements of CEOs. 

Written by

Jessie Park