You've heard it, and as an L&D professional you have possibly even used it when talking to senior leaders. Something like this:

"Based on the terminal objectives we will create seven microlearning chunks and put them in context of the LxP so that we can integrate with LRS to measure the Kirkpatrick's level two. By adding some assessments on the Bloom's evaluate level we will ensure on-the-job transfer."

This is the kind of language we often pitch to senior executives who do not have an L&D background, and they do not care for it. They care about performance, productivity, business outcomes, and results. So although we are tempted to use our familiar vocabulary, it is of utmost importance that we try to speak their language.

Change your vocabulary

Here I would like to refer to Sonya Overstreet and her session at DevLearn 2018 (see the references at the end of this article). Instead of using L&D vocabulary, she talked about execution, fulfillment, accomplishment, growth, increase, advance. These are words that are much closer to revenue and profit, expenses, market share, time to market, retention and risk— words that the C-suite understands, as Lisa Earle McLeod suggests in Forbes (see the references). The latter words are the senior leaders’ "terminal objectives." I suggest that instead of talking about terminal objectives and enabling objectives, you talk about key skills and supporting knowledge or knowledge needed to achieve the respective performance goals and business outcomes.

Eliminate the acronyms

Let's touch a painful aspect that both L&D professionals and most experts are prone to: acronyms. Acronyms are the easiest way to make sure you lose your C-suite audience! I suggest you eliminate them from your conversation. Why wouldn't you simply say "the learning platform" instead of LMS, LCMS, LxP, LRS? Or, if necessary, mention the acronym and then spell it out fully and possibly add some descriptive words to it. Even such a common term as LMS is easier to understand when you hear “learning management system", maybe along with: “… the platform that hosts your digital learning content and makes it possible to administer and track all your learners” (so that even people who do not know what LMS means get a clue). Going further, the compliance acronyms such as AICC/SCORM/xAPI can easily be replaced with (summarizing Wikipedia) something like: "… standards that allow content to be ported between learning systems and that enable information exchange so that we can track the learner activities."

Be ready if an executive tests you

However, keep your L&D "arsenal" ready in case someone decides to verify your knowledge, as happened with one of my customers. I was using pretty generic business language when talking to the lady responsible for a certain line of business. She invited her training manager to the meeting. To my surprise he started with a blast of questions; all fully packed with acronyms and terminology from instructional design and adult education theory, principles, and cognitive aspects. Once he realized I indeed enjoyed the conversation, he left the room. I passed my "background check" and immediately switched back to "normal" business language.

Reference the outcome without using jargon

Let me take another example from my industry (IT). Instead of talking about transition from brownfield to greenfield technology skills, talk about existing skills (that sooner or later will be outdated), future skills, and about upskilling the workforce. Instead of talking about improved skills as a result of your training, talk about improving operational efficiency and its impact on financial results. When it is hard to present the numbers, you can refer to the impact that highly competent employees will have on organizational reputation.

Eliminate some common L&D industry terms

Instead of (training) needs analysis (it tends to result in training, right?) talk about human performance, productivity, and business outcomes. Then propose the way to the outcomes—it may include other, non-training "interventions" (yes, even this word could be ambiguous). Discuss the requirements; check those that are already met and identify those that are not. Talk about critical projects and what is required there.

Use language that reflects the C-suite reality

Let us take parallels with sales. If more sales are closed using simple business vocabulary with minimal "expert babble," L&D people can also benefit from simplifying their language when talking to senior leaders and managers. An additional hint about adjusting the L&D language to that of executives is understanding how the C-suite is measured and compensated. The executives are not measured by the size of your training design document, the number of objectives, or the number of acronyms in it. They are not measured by the number of pages of your training manual nor by some great, professionally-created eLearning—and certainly not by the number of students who attend your training. Executives are measured by the business results. So they want to minimize the risk that your training will not improve the job performance of the learners. They want your training to contribute to an improved customer Net Promoter Score (NPS), and thus to increased revenue. They want to be sure their expenditures will pay off by creating a more competent workforce. And on the human side, they want to improve employee retention by increasing engagement—where your solutions can again help significantly.

Conversational competence is essential to L&D success

As David Kelly mentioned at DevLearn 2018, the L&D manager should have "conversational competence". So—if you want to learn as much as possible to prepare the most suitable learning solution, talk to the executives and ask them for their expected business outcomes. Ask them about the way that leads them to success. Document their responses. And then pave the "road to success". And when explaining your "training intervention," talk about building skills, empowering the employees to improve their performance, and contributing to the business results. Talk about competency, performance, results—about development, breakthrough, and growth.

Speak to SMEs as experts but speak to executives in their terms

To summarize, keep your expert language for expert circles but adjust it when discussing, presenting, and selling your learning solutions to executives. They will feel relaxed, they will understand your willingness to help them improve results, and they will buy—or at least schedule—the next appointment.


Sonya Overstreet. "Learning Professionals as True Business Partners," DevLearn 2018 Conference & Expo

Lisa Earle McLeod. Selling to the C-Suite: Why Executives Disengage, Forbes, Nov 15, 2019