Speechwriting: Good ways to deliver bad news

Many companies find themselves in a situation where they need to broadcast bad news to a crowd. Knowing what to do, and what not to do, is vital.

Many companies find themselves in a situation where they need to broadcast bad news to a crowd. Knowing what to do, and what not to do, is vital.

Speechwriters' jobs are difficult, even on good days. Not only are they expected to react quickly and coherently to the ever-changing machinations of business and politics, but the messages they craft can make or break the success of an individual or an organization. When the news is bad, their role is more critical.

Virtually all unfortunate events are followed quickly by a speech to key stakeholders. Low earnings, massive layoffs, accidents, and scandals demand a statement from leaders that communicates exactly where the situation stands and what the plans are for the future.

Experts say that this delicate task is best accomplished by keeping in mind a single principle: honesty. "I've seen too many companies that I've been involved with, or others, try to massage the news so it doesn't seem so bad. And it always backfires," says Richard Fly, now a freelance speechwriter, who once endured more than his share of financial follies and merger fallout while working as a speechwriter at Compaq and Digital Equipment.

"It's a natural point, but, from the time that we watched the Tylenol case or thought about crisis communications, it only works when you start from the standpoint of honesty."

Also crucial is brevity. "When you're delivering bad news, there's just no way around getting right to the point," says Fly. "Between honesty and getting to the point, it's 'forget the spin.'"

In the world of politics, where the sound bite quote has been honed to a fine art, one might think that leaders would automatically cut right to the heart of the issue. But when they're talking about something that doesn't reflect well upon them, politicians might have the opposite inclination. Greg Weiner, who served as chief speechwriter to former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) before founding his own firm, Content Communications, says that is a mistake. "There is, I think, a myth that all speeches are supposed to start slow or open with a joke, or somehow back their way into it. And I think that tends to insult people's intelligence when they're being given bad news," he says.

John Baldoni, head of Michigan-based Baldoni Consulting and author of Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders points out that a speechwriter must also take into account the expectations of the audience. "First of all, you have to look at what the audience is expecting to hear. In other words, you just lay it out," he says. "The most important thing as a speaker is to demonstrate your authenticity - who you are as a leader."

Being frank and honest in the face of a crisis is universally recommended by speechwriters, but those who actually deliver the speeches might find the prospect a bit tough. Some executives encourage more spin, not less, as the news worsens. "They read it, and they push back from their desk and say, 'Well, I don't want to come off as such a hard ass,'" says Robb Leer, a former broadcast journalist who now heads the Leer Communications consulting firm in Minnesota. He acknowledges that it's human nature to seek to obscure problems, but he believes that speechwriters must make the messengers obey the "honesty" tenet if their work is to be effective.

"Everybody's got his own style, and you can never take that style from an executive because that's why they are in the position they're in," Leer says. "But I think we have to sometimes be a little more firm-fisted with our consulting advice, to say, 'You know what? You really need to get to the point on this.'"

Good speechwriters, though, always take the speaker's style into account. A schism between verbal and nonverbal messages during a crisis speech can send a mixed signal at the very time that consistency and credibility is most important. Leslie Ungar, an executive coach who heads the Ohio-based consulting firm Electric Impulse, says that if a speaker's demeanor doesn't suit the gravitas of the situation, the audience will not believe him.

"They're going to walk away saying, 'He doesn't care at all,'" she says. "And the speaker can say, 'But I said ...' But when those two don't match, the audience always goes with what they look like [they're] saying."

Ungar also points out that an audience that has prepped itself for bad news is usually on edge, and, therefore, less likely to absorb and remember a great deal of information. To combat this effect, she recommends following the classical "Three T" structure of speechwriting: Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell it to them, and tell them what you told them. "It's especially important in a crisis time to give them a mantra that you can repeat," she says.

When a large corporation is involved, the scrutiny that a crisis provokes leaves little room for speechwriting errors. Christine Solie, a communications director at Ford Motor Credit Co. who is responsible for executive speechwriting, must keep one eye on Wall Street while doing her job. "The most important thing is to have a really strong business case for whatever you're announcing," she says. "What people always want to know from a corporation is, 'OK, so what's your plan?'"

While companies might be tempted to turn all of their focus on satisfying analysts and investors when bad economic news breaks, they must not neglect their employees, who might be the most immediately impacted. "The number one question to answer for employees is, 'So how does this affect my job?" Solie says. "The quicker that you're able to explain or provide subsequent communications that explain how this impacts each individual job, then the better your work force is at going back about its business."

Christopher Colford, an SVP at Financial Dynamics in Washington, DC, who serves as executive editor of the agency's speechwriting group, notes that preparation might be the most important task of all. "Having an early draft to work from - rather than having to create a framework [out of nothing] in the fevered atmosphere of a crisis - eases the inevitable deadline-driven anxieties of a speechwriter," he wrote in an e-mail.

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Technique tips

Do be completely honest about the scope and effect of bad news

Do outline concrete action steps the leader will take to address the crisis

Do make sure that the speaker understands and agrees with the need for a minimum of spin when serious situations arise

Don't write a long, meandering speech. Get right to the point

Don't allow too much time to elapse between a crisis and the speech addressing it. A response should be firm and immediate

Don't get stuck writing a crisis speech with no plan. Draft general outlines before the bad news happens

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