The Most Important Thing to Remember When Presenting Bad News

When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered his speech this week on the military’s downsizing, he delivered bad news. It had an immediate impact. People talked about it everywhere from CNN to conversations at the company coffee pot. And most people talked about the two big take aways from the talk: The military is cutting personnel, and the downsized military will have fewer members since before World War II.

Ask most people who saw the speech—or the media report about the speech—and you’ll get the same two key points. That same principle holds up for pretty much any speech or presentation—whether you are conveying information or selling a product. People only remember a couple of things.

Your job as the presenter when delivering bad news is to figure out what else you want the audience to remember and focus on that. In Hagel’s case, he didn’t do a strong enough selling job of why the military was cutting back personnel beyond simple budget cuts. He didn’t sell the upside of the move.

For the most part, audiences remember a couple of things from a talk or presentation. When you’re delivering bad news you can usually figure out the big take aways for the audience before you begin. Your job is to figure out a third key point, the third take away that you want the audience to remember and hit that key point hard, creatively, and consistently so people remember it.

If you fail to do that, then the bad news will expand disproportionately to your intentions. No one likes to hear bad news. So when you have to deliver it, find a positive angle to include in your presentation and find a way to make that as memorable as the obvious impact of the bad news.

When the news makes its way back to you through either the media, office chat, or the grapevine, notice the takeaways that people talk about. See what, if anything they say beyond the obvious. That’s how you can judge your effectiveness.

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