How to present challenging messages effectively

 Tom Bird and Jeremy Cassell offer advice on the harsh reality of breaking difficult news or unwelcome decisions

As leaders, you often have to deliver high-stakes presentations and some of these can involve presenting challenging messages. This might be communicating a tough or unwelcome decision or introducing change. How do the best leaders do this effectively? What do they focus on in their planning and delivery that creates the best chance of these challenging messages being received with alacrity?

We have worked with leaders for the past 20 years and there are six key principles they us in the planning and delivery of their presentations that are effective in these situations:

Be clear on your desired outcome
Before you create and deliver a presentation, get really clear on your specific desired outcome. Do you want your presentation to create understanding, commitment or action? What are your expectations about how you want the audience to feel at the end of your presentation and are those expectations realistic?
 
Put yourself in the shoes of the audience
As part of your planning, imagine being in the audience for your presentation. How would you feel about the proposition or message? What are you concerned about? What barriers could you foresee? All of these questions will help you understand what you need to address in your presentation. They may also help inform your view of how long the overall change from where they are now to where you want them to be will take. It may take longer than what can be achieved through a single presentation.
 
Pace the audience before leading them
Remember that ‘people buy emotionally and then justify logically’. Too often, presenters construct a logical justification and forget that they need to engage their audience emotionally if they are to succeed. Pacing is about developing empathy at the start of the presentation that earns you the right to lead. You do this by making some statements at the very start of the presentation that acknowledge how different sections of the audience might be feeling. Alternatively, you could ask some questions to elicit these feelings. In either event, letting the audience tell you how they feel or demonstrating that you have thought about this will show empathy and help earn you the right to lead them towards your outcome.
 
Communicate a burning platform and a ‘what’s in it for me?’
Change of any sort is often uncomfortable for people. If your message involves some kind of change, spend time considering how you will articulate the burning platform – the compelling reason behind the change. Without this, people are unlikely to make the change a priority. In addition, consider the personal benefits of the change on the individuals concerned: what will happen as a positive consequence of the change and what negative consequences will they avoid as a result of the change?
 
Present a clear vision of the future
Once people have a good reason for the change, they need to understand what the future will look like after the change has been successful. Without this vision of the future to draw them forward, you are likely to have a quick start but no real follow-up. Make sure you answer any practical concerns and ‘what ifs?’
 
Present your message clearly and objectively
Sometimes when we have a difficult message to communicate through a presentation we wrap it up in cotton wool and the message lacks clarity. This phenomenon is known as the pillow effect: in an attempt to soften the message we fail to be really clear about what the message is! Consider how you will state your message with clarity and objectivity as part of your planning. Then practise delivering the message, so it is authentic.

Finally, with all difficult messages, it is possible that the audience will go into either denial or resistance. These are the first two phases of the Kübler-Ross curve and it’s important that you realise this is nothing personal – it is simply how people often react to significant change. If your audience do not immediately respond positively to your message it may just be that they need time to take it in and process it. Don’t take their reaction personally. As long as you have planned using these steps and delivered your message with empathy, authenticity and integrity you have ‘controlled the controllables’.

Tom Bird and Jeremy Cassell are authors of , The Leader's Guide to Presenting: How to Use Soft Skills to Get Hard Results, winners of 2018 The Business Book Awards. The Business Books Awards 2019 is now open for entries.