leadership

Six tips for presenting tough information to staff

Emma Bannister /

responding to a crisis

Founder and chief executive of presentation studio Emma Bannister. Source: Supplied.

Think of the last presentation you gave that touched on some tough topics.

Did you manage to fine-tune your message to avoid confusion? And how did you overcome the challenges of communicating unpleasant information to a team of people looking at you for leadership?

Presentations are powerful tools leaders have at their disposal to communicate business ideas, news and vision. However, sometimes business leaders also have the tough task of needing to pass on uncomfortable information to their teams.

These sticky subjects could be any number of things — from restructures, to budget cuts, to the stickiest of all, redundancies.

Here is where the humble presentation can truly be a lifesaver.

For the most part, the rules of delivering a persuasive and meaningful presentation are the same, yet, when the culture stakes are high, it pays to be a little extra considerate when it comes to crafting your presentation story.

So, what are some of the tricks to presenting when your audience is potentially not going to like the subject matter? And what are some of the ways you can ensure that it’s your message that sticks?

Follow these six tips.

Time your message

Think about the people affected by the information and whether you need to speak with them prior to any wider announcement. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people forget this.

Whether you are addressing your topic in a smaller group or a larger public forum, don’t rush through the important elements of your announcement. Take time to explain the rationale in a confident manner. Especially if its particularly sticky, as this will help move towards a positive outcome.

Get to the point

Don’t beat around the bush. 

Yes, it’s important to set the scene and add context (as it is in any presentation), but don’t go on a tangent. With sticky subjects, rip off the band-aid to swiftly address next steps and outline your action plan.

It is also important to ensure you are not re-hashing tired old slides from previously used decks. Aside from this being totally uninspirational for those who have viewed this reincarnated presentation before, it may also feel disingenuous and irrelevant.  

Prepare and practice

The challenge most chief executives and leaders face is they will often need to pull a presentation together at the last hurried minute. But even when deadlines are tight, preparation is your key to success (and we are not just talking about the slide deck).

More than ever, a sticky subject has a greater opportunity to result in an emotional response from your audience, so use relevant personal stories to find common ground with your audience. Plus, be sure to practise your delivery so you have a handle on the flow and timing of your presentation.

Jokes aside

If you are delivering news or information that is potentially unpleasant, avoid humour to try and lighten the mood. It’s very unlikely your audience will share your mood, so humour is dangerous ground.

In every presentation, is it crucial to respect the audience — they are by far the most important person in the room. Deliver your content in a way that puts them at the centre and is less about making the situation more comfortable for you as a presenter.

If applicable, consider emphasising the positives of the situation while not glossing over the realities, if you are looking to help ease the awkwardness.

From human to human

Just because jokes may not be appropriate doesn’t mean you must be a cardboard cut-out of yourself on stage.

Early on in your presentation, make sure you use the time you have to build a rapport with your audience. Be honest and authentic in how you speak to them. Feel free to explore any areas of common ground you share with your audience and understand the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Make yourself available

Sometimes the message will go down smoothly, and other times, it will be just plain sticky.

For those who need a little extra time to digest, or require more information, consider allowing time at the end of your presentation for questions or making yourself available to have more intimate conversations with your team should they request it.  

And on the topic of requests, I would limit advice unless you are asked.

So, use this powerful tool to your advantage. Irrespective of the audience size, being able to communicate with humility, strong leadership and with a clear and consistent message, is the key to overcoming any tough topic.

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Emma Bannister

Emma is the founder and chief executive officer of Presentation Studio, APAC’s largest presentation communication agency, and author of the book Visual Thinking: How to transform the way you think, communicate and influence with presentations.

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