Should You Lead with the Bad News?

In my workshops, I teach people to start their presentation by answering the audience’s question as soon as possible. Executives don’t like to waste time; they want to get right to the point. So don’t “build up” to your point – start with it.

But in a recent workshop, someone asked an interesting question: what if the news is bad? What if the project is behind schedule? The sales promotion is a flop? We didn’t hit our quarterly numbers? Do you start a presentation with the bad news?

The rule of thumb is to never lead with bad news. It damages your credibility. Your manager’s logical question may be “what needs my attention?” but their emotional question is “please tell me things are under control. I’m already fighting too many fires. Please tell me you’ve got this one covered.”

One common approach is called the “sandwich” approach. You sandwich the bad news between two fluffy buns of good news.

Example 1. The project is behind schedule in Europe but on schedule in North America. Using the sandwich approach, you say

Good:     The project is on track in North America
Bad:        The project is behind schedule in Europe
Good:     We’re doubling our efforts in Europe and should be back on track by mid-October

Example 2. The 30%-off promotion only resulted in a 10% sales increase. You lost money on the promotion.

Good:    We saw a 10% sales increase during the promotion
Bad:        Unfortunately, we lost money overall
Good:     But we learned our customers are not that price sensitive so are considering testing higher prices next quarter

Example 3. You fell short of your quarterly sales goals

Good:     We closed the Costco and American Airlines accounts this quarter, which really helped our sales numbers
Bad:        Unfortunately we lost the IBM and Kellogg accounts, so we fell a bit short of our sales targets
Good:     Our sales team just got another meeting with the Kellogg people and we still have a shot at closing it next quarter

Leading with the bad news is like throwing a burning pile of newspaper into the audience’s lap. There are times when you need to just be honest and not sugar-coat the truth. But in most common boardroom meetings where there’s a mix of good and bad news, sandwich the bad news between the good news to maintain your executive presence.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the New Language of Business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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