Got some information you're not thrilled about sharing? Here's how to deliver bad news successfully.
I have some good news for you.
There's a way to deliver bad news that doesn't change the information you need to get across, just how successful you are in doing it. You see, it isn't what you say. It's how you say it.
To start with, try to say the right things and avoid the wrong ones! Learn more in my Free White Paper, "25 Words Or Phrases to Avoid in Speeches and Presentations."
It's one of the times in public speaking where your vocal skills can really make a difference!
How to Throw Away Something Important
The key is de-emphasizing the bad news vocally so that you don't sound like The Voice of Doom. It's bad enough that you have to get something unsavory across. Why hammer people over the head with it by how deep, down, and dark you sound?
In the theater, we have a term for landing light on a line: we call it "throwing it away." That basically means that the identical words are delivered, they just aren't brought front and center for everyone to pay close attention to. In a skillful actor's hands, throwing away a line can actually make it more important; but that's not the path I want to go down here.
Project Not Working? — Tell Us About Your Plan!
Let's take the following example. You're an analyst who'll be speaking at your private equity fund's annual meeting. It's definitely high-profile, as all your firm's institutional investors will be in the audience. Since you work on one fund in particular, it's your task among the lineup of speakers to talk about that fund's performance over the past year. And the news ain't good.
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But the audience members whose organizations are invested in that fund already know this. So they're hoping to hear something positive from you. Right off the bat, then, you can't sound, what?—uncomfortable, worried, apologetic . . . take your pick.
You need to deliver your remarks in a straightforward, professional way that a) acknowledges the situation, b) does so briskly (so that you can move on), and c) gets right to the part where you discuss how your company has a plan to turn things around. You're straightforward and honest, without dwelling on the setback.
Essential Vocal Tips: Don't allow your voice to become ponderous—in other words, too heavy. And avoid speaking too slowly, as that only gives listeners more time to dwell on each dark nugget. Just as important, switch to a more positive-sounding voice when you're discussing the solution. That's when you can sound most upbeat. (Here's more on how to improve your voice to sound more professional.)
What if you're asked what the plan is? You start by telling that person you're glad he or she asked the question, because your company is eager to share your plan with investors. And here's where you throw away the next line: "We don't have time in today's meeting to go into that in detail." Positive voice again: "But we'll be reaching out to you very soon."
And For Those Difficult People at Meetings . . .
A similar situation can arise when people question you at meetings (in-person or virtually), and you basically have to tell them that they can't wrestle the main stage away from you. It might be someone in your company but not on your team, a customer, a vendor, or another stakeholder.
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In these situations, you can use the same two-step process I outlined above: (1) acknowledge the questioner and the question, and (2) segue into the reality that you can't get into the weeds by answering it here. The first part is important because it validates the listener emotionally. You must, therefore, sound empathetic. And truly, the best way to sound so is to really have empathy for their position. Feel free also to acknowledge the importance of the inquiry.
Once again, you throw away the next line: "Of course, that's beyond the scope of today's meeting." Upbeat: "That's a topic that we'll be getting to, though, when we can give it the time and attention it deserves."
Take these steps, and bad news can be good news for you if you demonstrate that you can handle it well. Just remember: your task is to end up with a satisfied stakeholder as well.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching worldwide. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.