When someone says to you, “I have some good news and bad news,” what goes through your head? Do you want them to try and sugarcoat it, or do you want them to get straight to the point? Often, it can feel like you’re watching someone blow up a balloon. That person is adding more and more hot air, and you’re just waiting for the balloon to pop.
That’s just one mistake people make when they have to deliver bad news. Here are some other common ones I see (and what you should do instead):
Mistake 1: Making an inappropriate joke
If you think humor is the best way to reduce the tension, you’re wrong. Most likely, your audience is not ready to laugh. You’ll probably be greeted with crickets at best, followed by growing silence. Now that’s going to cause you more tension.
Rather than leading with a joke, you’re better of just trying to breathe. I’m not talking about taking a big breath but a sip of air. Exhale and mentally count 1, 2, 3, 4—then begin. Taking that second to exhale gently will help you get in sync with your body and with your mind.
Mistake 2: Speaking in long-winded sentences
Delivering bad news is stressful. As a result, you may end up falling into a pattern of sentences with lots of clauses and short on pauses. Though everything you’re saying may be relevant and essential, the endless barrage of words is mind-numbing.
Rather than succumb to a long-winded ramble, try speaking in short sentences that are personal and conversational. So instead of saying, “After looking up all the alterations and evaluating the situation and analyzing the trends and gathering feedback from all the stakeholders,” say:
We looked at all the alterations.
We evaluated the situation.
We analyzed the trends.
We gathered feedback from all the stakeholders.
By speaking in short sentences, you’ll give your ideas out in bite-size pieces and not in an overflowing pour. And you’ll feel more relaxed, particularly if you exhale gently after each sentence.
Mistake 3: Projecting high energy
When you have to deliver bad news, you often get a rush of adrenaline. Your heart starts pumping. You start talking faster, gesturing more, even jiggling your leg. While this surge of energy may help you feel better, the impact is that you come across as jerky, abrupt—often harsh. You’ll add static that will cloud your message.
Focus on a smooth delivery. When you watch Roger Federer—world champion tennis player—notice how smoothly he hits the ball. Focus on speaking smoothly by lengthening your vowel sounds and let your energy flow through your voice. Think of gesturing smoothly—moving from your body as if you were pulling your arm through water. The more you focus on speaking smoothly, the more chance you’ll have to get your bad news beyond the static and into clarity.
Mistake 4: Using jargon
You may be tempted to give bad news couched in corporate speak. “We have to get the company right sized, get the right people in the right seats on the bus, so we can face our headwinds with agility.”
When you say something like this, not only do we not know what you’re talking about, we also wonder what you’re hiding. Are you afraid to speak plainly? Are you trying to distance yourself from the message? Who knows? When you use jargon, your listeners might not get your message, and you raise questions about your credibility.
A much better solution is to talk as if you were talking to a friend: “Our business is down. We have to cut expenses. We have to shut down your project—immediately.” Being clear takes courage—as Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak.” When you use simple language, you’ll show courage, enhance your credibility, and also get your message across clearly.
Delivering bad news is never easy. But by avoiding these mistakes, you can make the best of a bad situation. You might not be able to change how it impacts people, but you can make it easier on the receiver by paying attention to your delivery.