In 1969, something amazing happened in our world: Mankind actually landed and walked on the moon. A lot of planning and preparation went into making sure that experience was successful. But, as with all good leaders, President Richard Nixon also had to have a contingency plan. What if it was a disaster? What if we lost Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, either in space or on the moon? Part of that planning involved putting together a speech to “deliver the bad news” if things ended up that way. So a speechwriter for the president sent a memo to H. R. Haldeman on July 18, 1969, outlining a speech that could be used in the event of tragedy.
Let’s look at that undelivered speech, attributed to William Safire, and see how the process of delivering bad news was incorporated into it:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
With this situation there is no need to set the stage. All the world was watching to see what would happen with the men on the moon.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
The bad news is stated directly: “There is no hope for their recovery.” There was no hedging or building up to it, because the audience would want to know. Plus, if they know up front, they know how to listen to the rest of what is being said. The audience clearly has the context. In the sentence “They also know that there is hope for mankind,” the speechwriter starts to initiate the idea that the future has a positive outlook.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
Here, the speechwriter gives the rationale and consequences for what is happening. The rationale is, “the search for truth and understanding ... mankind’s noble goal ...” The consequences are that the whole world will be mourning their loss. Empathy is displayed in the statement, “Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown ...”
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
Here the speechwriter again connects to the rationale and consequences with his statement, “sacrifice ... people to feel as one ... bind more tightly the brotherhood of man ...”
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
To get people to look toward the future, the speechwriter connects the future with something familiar from the past. Connecting with the historically familiar makes it easier for people to feel that sense of hope, and without hope it would be tough to move on. He does this with his statement, “... in ancient days men looked at stars and saw their heroes ... in modern times ... our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood ...” and then finishes it off with, “There is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
One of the interesting things about this speech is that we can look at it now without our emotions blurring our thinking—because the event didn’t happen. Emotion tends to cloud our ability to think rationally in difficult times. That will be true for the speaker and listeners alike when delivering bad news. We know people won’t be happy to hear it. We may not even feel too good about it ourselves! Because of our own feelings, we not only need to plan our words, but ask someone who is not emotionally involved to review it for “tone.”
One of the attributes of this specific speech is it is brief—only 233 words. This is the same pattern you see at most press briefings. The actual speech is short. Most of the time for interaction is invested in answering follow-up questions.
In a corporate environment, the same pattern is effective. People are absorbing the news on their feet and immediately start to think of the impact on them. Their attention span, after you’ve delivered this emotional body blow, will be short. Tell them what you have to tell them, and then make it interactive with questions and answers. That pattern will move people toward looking to the future, to help make the necessary changes you are asking them to make.