Table of Contents, How To Present To Any Audience Resources Page
Previous Section, How To Present To Any Audience Next Section, How To Present To Any Audience

Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Chapter 11: How to Deliver Bad News


"I'll never forget that day!" my friend Joan said to me. "I have never felt so sick to my stomach about any message I had to give the staff as I did that one."

I'm sure many of you can guess what she told me next. Joan works in the financial services industry. Her company was "right-sizing." People would lose their jobs, offices would be consolidated, budgets would be cut, as the organization decided where to focus its spending. Life, as her staff had known it for many years, would no longer exist.

A manager's job is to communicate to staff. That means delivering the bad news along with the good. Unfortunately, for most of us, delivering the good news is a job we like - delivering the bad is a job we'd like to delegate!

Kill the Messenger!

Delivering bad news is complicated. The implications are often not clear. The message is sometimes incomplete. The impact, in the larger sense, may not be known yet. And we may not be the originators of the news, only the messenger. And you know what people say about the messenger ...

We have a lot to lose.

The Importance of Trust

Consider our credibility as managers. Because our message is sometimes incomplete, or if we are obviously uncomfortable delivering the news, our listeners sometimes feel we don't know what we are talking about. Once we lose credibility, people question our authority and whether we really care about them. Very quickly, we lose control.

Think about New York City's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, during the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack. He had the city's trust, he was credible to people in the rest of the United States, and he personified a dignified empathy.

These are the three things you want to make sure you impart when delivering bad news. First, that as the manager you are credible - meaning you have the knowledge and experience to deliver the message. Second, that you demonstrate empathy for the people who are impacted, caring about them, their well-being, and their future. Third, in your talk, you need to build trust, so people will continue to be responsible to you and the organization during this critical time.

Appreciating that we have to build empathy, credibility, and trust is not enough. We have to know what skills and behaviors to use to demonstrate those attributes when we speak to our colleagues. Let's take a look at the principle elements and then use an example to demonstrate how they are applied.

Timely Delivery of News

Rumor mills in corporate America are incredibly efficient. This efficiency has been enhanced through email, text messaging, and the cell phone. Employees can now deliver any message to each other within seconds. Sometimes they are even so thoughtful when they pass on their information that they begin the message with, "Don't tell anybody else, but ..." Unfortunately, the "don't tell anybody" part gets dropped by the third person on the list and gets changed to, "You'd better tell everybody ..." and implied in that is, "so we can prepare our retaliation strategy!"

No matter what, don't "sit" on the news. Get it out fast or it will find its way out on its own. The sooner you deliver the news yourself, the more you reduce the informal news flow, which is bound to be tainted in its delivery. By reducing that, you reduce anxiety and the desire for retaliation.

If possible, deliver your news in person to the total audience being impacted by the news. You want to be able to demonstrate credibility and empathy, and it is much easier to do that when they are seeing you live. Now, this can be a physical impossibility in our world of satellite home offices and cross-continental businesses. If you cannot deliver the message in person to everyone, have an "in person" meeting for your direct reports, and then use another media to reach the rest.

If "in person" is not possible, telephone conference calling is the next best method. This allows everyone to hear the same message and to ask the inevitable questions. Conference calls can be set up rather quickly and are cost efficient while allowing you to reach and involve everyone.

Email is and should be considered your last choice for delivering bad news. Although electronic mail messaging does have the advantage of being fast, it is an impersonal and one-way communication. Moreover, it can be altered, in transit.

The written word is a wonderful follow-up to the conference call or in-person interaction. It puts in writing any details that may have been difficult for the listeners to capture during the initial delivery of the news. Wherever possible, mail individual letters. This is the more personal approach, when you need to demonstrate empathy in these situations.

Preparation Is Key

Speed is important, no question, but we can't shoot from the hip. Preparation is even more important when delivering bad news than good news. You know the recipients will hang on every word. Their careers may be impacted; their lives will be changed. What we say and how we say it is critical. Spend the time necessary planning what you will say both during the talk and in the question-and-answer session afterward. Think through what questions people are likely to ask and what answers you can share.

Demonstrating Leadership

Donald Walton, a bestselling writer, speaker, and consultant on communications said,

Those who become leaders are the ones who can best transmit their views, ideas, and enthusiasms to others. That is what a leader is.

I can't imagine a time when being a leader, pulling people together, is more important than when an organization is under duress. Although we are certainly troubled by the impact of the bad news, we must demonstrate our views, ideas, and enthusiasms - that there is something positive to come out of all this. Use your voice and body to enhance what you say. Volume, intonation, eye control, and physical skills become critically important. (Refer to Chapter 2, How to Stand Up and Speak as Well as You Think.)

Hope at the End of the Tunnel

The toughest part in hearing bad news is the sense of not knowing where the bottom is and what the future looks like. In delivering the bad news, it is very important that we lay out our own estimates and speak the truth when we do.

Tell employees where you understand the bottom to be. An example of this might be, "The hardest part of this change will be in the next few weeks, when you all determine whether you want to make this move or not," or "We expect to continue this moratorium on spending to the end of this quarter."

You can see how important it becomes that we also provide a positive outlook for the future. We cannot expect our employees to automatically see that ray of hope. It is very hard for anyone to see the future through the veil of change. Change is scary. If we can show our vision for that change, our hope for the future, we better equip our colleagues to help us reach that goal. An example of a vision might be, "This change will allow us to continue to compete in this marketplace by focusing our resources," or "Once we move our services to a location that makes it easier for our customers to physically reach us, our sales should improve significantly."

The Importance of Telling Them Why

A logical question for listeners once they know what is happening is: Why is it happening? The tricky part is they don't really care about it from the corporate perspective; they care about it from their own perspective. If possible, make those personal and individual connections for them in what you say. These connections should include the value of making the changes as well as the negative consequences that may result.

For example, in a situation where a manager had to tell her employees that they were merging with the operations department and moving to offices 35 miles away, the value might be, "So our department can more easily utilize the resources of that department that we all need." The consequences might be, "Some of you will have a longer commute every day, and some will have a shorter commute. Some of you may decide to take a different job as a result of these changes."

Delivering Bad News - The Format

Here, more than at any other time, your organizational format is critical so that people will be able to "hear" your message the way you intend. Below is the format for Delivering Bad News. This format works for the written follow-up as well.

Bad News Format

  1. Set the stage

  2. State the bad news

  3. Give the rationale and consequences

  4. Empathize

  5. Look to the future

  6. Answer questions

1. Set the stage. Give whatever background is necessary for other people to receive the news in context. This should be brief, mostly because they will stop listening if it isn't. There may be times when there is no need to give any background at all because they are all well aware of what is happening. Set the stage using phrases like, "In light of the new ..." or "As you all know, we have had consultants helping us define our goals as an organization, which are to ..."

2. State the bad news. The most important part here is to state the news directly. Hedging makes you come across as unsure of yourself; it negatively impacts your credibility. Don't withhold the critical information. State the bad news up front in the presentation. Don't build up to it.

3. Give the rationale. After you tell them what happened, the listeners will immediately want to know why. Give the rationale behind the bad news. The listeners will then want to know what the message means to them. State the consequences of the bad news.

4. Empathize. Throughout your message you need to express a supportive concern for the emotional impact of this situation. Empathy will also be demonstrated through the tone you use to deliver your message. Additionally, after you give the rationale and consequences, there needs to be verbal recognition on your part that you know this is hard for them. That's empathy.

5. Look to the future. Here the conversation turns an important corner. Now you're looking toward the future in a more positive light. That may mean suggesting actions that will preclude a replay of the bad news just delivered.

6. Answer questions and concerns. This is where much of your credibility will get developed. Anticipate questions your audience might ask. Develop answers ahead of time. Your preparation will signal to the listeners that you've done your homework and have given thorough consideration to their situation.

During events like this, there are often questions that don't have answers yet. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know," and then give them a time when you can get the answers to them. Make sure you demonstrate that you are making note of those questions, so they believe you when you say that you will follow up. (See Chapter 5, How to Handle Audience Pressure.)

Applying the Process to an Actual Speech

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."

Dealing In the Reality of Our Emotion

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."

The Length of the Talk

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.

Key Learnings for Delivering Bad News



Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

Table of Contents, How To Present To Any Audience Resources Page
Previous Section, How To Present To Any Audience Next Section, How To Present To Any Audience