Effective Presentation Skills: How to Deliver Bad News to a Group
July 20, 2012 by Bill Rosenthal

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

To make matters worse, whether you’re the President of the United States or a corporate CEO, having to deliver bad news leaves you wide open for major scrutiny. One has only to look at the barrage of criticism heaped on BP during last year’s massive oil leak to understand that doing a poor job of owning up to major issues only serves to dig oneself into an insurmountable hole on all sides.

No matter how skillfully you announce bad news, it's likely to cause anxiety, result in at least a temporary drop in productivity, and prompt some of your valued employees to look for work elsewhere. If you’re going to have to tell people what they don’t want to hear, you’d better get it right.

Here’s a four-part plan for announcing any kind of news that causes disappointment, whether it's not making the numbers, relocating facilities, or eliminating a valued perk.

1. Do it as soon as possible. Bad news travels faster than the speed of light. Your employees no doubt know that “something’s up”, and until an official announcement is made, there will be lots of speculation flying about. Head off the rumors quickly. Speaking up, define exactly what's happening and truthfully describe its implications. This also demonstrates that you're in charge and are being candid.

A word here on using email to deliver bad news: Don’t. Though email would give you the speed and control you need, it's the worst possible medium for delivering bad news. No matter how you phrase the announcement, you'll appear cowardly and cold. Announce the news at a meeting for everyone who'll be affected. If more than one meeting's needed, schedule them one after the other and be sure to keep the message consistent.

2. Speak candidly. Tell your employees everything that can be told. If you don't yet know the full extent of the news, say so. If time goes by and there's nothing new to announce, say there isn't any new news, so you avoid creating an anxiety-feeding information vacuum.

Be compassionate, but don't apologize for your bad news or talk at length about how bad you feel. This makes you look weak.

To come across as credible and sincere, you have to look at the audience in the eye. This is something that can't be done by reading a speech. Make sure that you’ve rehearsed the presentation so well that you can deliver it unscripted. As you rehearse the words, rehearse the body language you'll use. What the audience sees will make a stronger impact than what you're saying.

3. Give them the big picture. Begin the presentation by giving context — but do it quickly. Too much background up front can make you look insecure about getting to the bad news itself. If you played a part in what went wrong, or took part in a decision that will be painful for the employees to hear, admit it.

It’s important to assure the employees that management has a strategy for overcoming the problems at hand, and ask for their support. Without misrepresenting the situation, be optimistic. Emphasize all the organization is doing to combat the problem, and what specific actions management is taking to spare employees pain.

Don’t make the employees feel helpless. Tell everyone what their role will be in addressing the problem, and assure them that they'll have a voice in future planning.

4. Plan for questions. Anticipate the questions you're likely to be asked and be ready for them with concise and credible answers. Adapt them for the particular audience you're addressing.

If a question is complicated, rephrase it to simplify it without changing the meaning. If it's angry, recast it in neutral language. Your news may generate a number of angry questions. Be sure you control your own emotions and answer these questions respectfully.

As you answer questions, begin by looking at the questioner, then look at the rest of the audience to signal that the answer is meant for everyone. You can prevent unfriendly questioners from asking repetitive follow-up questions — and give more people a chance to ask their questions — by looking at the opposite part of the room as you finish your answer and recognizing a question coming from there.

Delivering bad news is one of the biggest challenges managers face. By handling the challenge well, you'll galvanize employees to help you meet your goals — and demonstrate to senior management (and the press) how well you can lead in tough times.

For more tips on delivering bad news, download the article: Delivering Bad News and Getting Good Results