Most of us can remember where we were when events, both good and bad, have happened in the world. Or remember being in the audience for a great or inspirational speech. Some remember a show or musical that fed the soul or just made you laugh to the point of tears. I still remember how elated I was seeing the Lion King for the first time in London. Or more recently being dragged by my cousin to see the Book of Mormon, irreverent, but very funny.
One of the world’s most important events was the Tiananmen Square Massacre that took place on 4th of June 1989. Pro-democracy protesters tried to deliver bad news – we don’t think what you are doing is working. Ultimately, they wanted the communist party to change their behaviour. However, the Communist Party Leadership feared communism was under threat from pro-democracy peaceful protesters and ordered tanks to end the demonstration, which they did with a catastrophic and deadly outcome.
Years later on a business visit to Beijing, I remember standing in the spot where a lone protester stopped four tanks heading towards Tiananmen Square before the carnage. His act of bravery needed courage and endurance. You need endurance to share bad news or persuade a person or group to change their behaviour. In our book, Persuading for Results, we have a specific insight on how to deliver bad news.
Delivering Bad News
If bad news is something you have no experience in or believe is out of your field, you may consult with an expert. For example, a presentation to long haul drivers about drugs would probably be better dealt with by a doctor, psychologist or counsellor. However, if they are not involved directly in the issue, you should not delegate the entire responsibility for the presentation to the expert. If you have called them in to provide expert advice, they should follow from your introduction.
For example, you might begin by explaining to the drivers the reasons you are concerned about their exposure to drugs. You might include a story about an anonymous person you know who has lost a friend or family member through a drug addiction that started harmlessly enough to stay awake on long drives but soon became more serious. After explaining why you are concerned for them, you could introduce the expert by saying, “Dr Bob Smith has joined us today because he specialises in treating people for drug addiction. He chose this career when he was 25, after seeing one of his friends lose a battle with drug addiction and have a serious truck accident. I have asked him to speak to us today from both a personal and medical perspective. Please make him welcome.”
In a sensitive situation where people will be deeply affected by the news, it might be better to let people absorb bad news before bringing in experts and action plans. If your audience is hearing the news for the first time, they will need time to accept what has happened, before they can hear solutions. If there are no solutions or positive points, the bad news should be a sharing process. People will want to think about the issue in their own time and talk about how they feel.
The Proven Formula
Announcing bad news requires discretion and sensitivity. As with every presentation you give, it will vary depending on your message and your audience. However, there is a basic formula for delivering bad news:
Warn the audience that you have bad news.
Announce the bad news.
Identify with the audience.
Emphasise any positive points.
Create an action plan.
Warn the audience that you have bad news, by warning your audience that you are about to share some bad news with them. This way, they will be able to prepare themselves for what you are about to say. It will ease some of their shock if they are mentally primed.
Announce the bad news, for example sharing news with a group of senior bank managers after the Banking Royal Commission, “The bad news is that this year’s staff bonuses have been cancelled” The audience will probably be angry.
Identify with the audience by making a statement that empathises with the audience. For example, “I am sure that some of you are very angry and upset at this decision.” Or “some of you will disagree with the decision, our banking customers won’t.”
Typically you cannot change the decision. So, be firm that the decision cannot be changed, but flexible about dealing with the consequences. If people are in shock or denial, you may need to patiently and calmly repeat the message several times. It helps to have a written announcement for people to take away and read, after recovering from the shock.
Delivering bad news is tough. Having the endurance to stand in front of four tanks is sobering. There are times when we must be prepared and focused when we ask people to take tough decisions. As our world continues to change through digital disruption, we will be delivering bad news more often.