Coaching crisis Presentation

This ONE technique is essential for performing under pressure:

A colleague told me about a women’s self defense class she was taking. She shared some surprising information she learned.

For me, the information was surprising on two levels. The first level was the actual new information about women’s self defense I learned. My colleague said,

“If you’re being attacked, my instructor said you’re supposed to yell as loud as you can to attract attention. But you’re supposed to yell swear words and filthy language at the top of your lungs, because that REALLY attracts attention. People have grown accustomed women screaming, so they tend to filter it out. But they aren’t accustomed to women screaming filth, so then they know something is wrong.”

Well, now. That’s new information to me. I didn’t know that. And I was surprised to hear it.

But then I got surprised on another level. My colleague continued,

“Of course, we couldn’t practice or drill on that technique. The instructor didn’t want us yelling dirty words in her class.”

That surprised me, too. If a technique is effective, you need to practice it. You need to drill. It may be uncomfortable, but PRACTICE is essential to making a new technique second nature.

After all, athletes drill the fundamentals all the time. That way, when they’re in the clutch, they don’t have to think about what to do. They already know what to do. They’ve practiced it a zillion times until it’s part of their muscle memory.

In speech and crisis response classes, we imagine all types of audience scenarios. We rehearse worst-case scenarios. We do walk-throughs. We drill on what to say and how to say it. When you’re faced with a difficult or high-pressure situation, you’ll need to know what to do without spending too much time thinking about how to do it.

I’m not sure if the “dirty word” self defense technique is effective. It might be — it might not be. (I’m skeptical.)

But I know if students don’t practice the technique, they won’t use it effectively when faced with a high-pressure situation. If you want to make a technique second nature – you’ve got to practice it. Especially if it’s difficult, hard to hear… or even taboo.

Laura Bergells writes, coaches, and teaches. Check out her online courses at LinkedIn Learning.  You can also find Laura on Twitter and at YouTube.

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How to deliver bad news

FDR Franklin RooseveltThere’s no way around it. Sometimes, terrible things happen. And you have to be the bearer of bad news.

To begin communicating your bad news, just say it. No hemming. No hawing. Get to the point. No couching it with “there’s no easy way to put this, but…”

You must lead clearly and concisely with the bad news. For an example in excellence, let’s look at the first sentence of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “infamy” speech:

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

It’s clear and precise. Who, what, where, and when. Thirty-one words, total.

You can use this one simple sentence as the only template you’ll ever need for delivering almost any bad news. For example:

  • “Last quarter, our company lost our biggest client to a competitor.”
  • “Mrs. Jones, your son will be repeating the 5th grade next year.”
  • “I will not be serving spinach tonight because of E. Coli concerns.”

Sadly, I’ve had the misfortune to sit with loved ones in doctors’ offices where my friends received death sentences — and the format is the same. “Mrs. X, you have cancer. You have a 50 to 70% chance of surviving the next three years. Here’s what you can expect…”

It may seem cold, but it’s actually kind. Getting to the point swiftly removes the anxiety of uncertainty. Hemming and hawing only prolongs it. Often, your audience already senses something is wrong: don’t extend their agony.

In fact, the entire text of FDR’s famous “infamy” speech could be the ultimate template for delivering bad news…in just about any situation.

Coaching crisis

How good are you at answering simple questions? Take this easy quiz.

As an intelligent business person, you might think you are excellent at answering simple, direct questions. But are you?

Take this easy, 5-question quiz to find out:

1. A venture capitalist asks how much your new service costs. You:
A: Explain how you and your team arrived at the various price points.
B. Respond, “$79 for our platinum service, $59 for gold, $49 for silver.”

2. Your spouse asks you when you’ll be home. You say:
A: “I have a meeting at 4 o’clock. Sometimes these things run a little late. Pat can be long-winded. And then traffic can be bad by then. So.”
B: “I’m guessing around 6, give or take 15 minutes.”

3. Your colleague asks if you can attend a meeting at 1pm: You respond:
A: “I’m having lunch with my boss today.”
B: “I can’t make it at 1. I can get there at 1:30.”

4. A customer asks if you carry Brand X. You don’t. What do you say?
A: “We used to, but we recently switched suppliers.”
B: “I’m sorry, no; we carry Brand Y. It’s even better.”

5. A local reporter asks you where you will be holding your annual event. You:
A: Explain that for the last 3 years you had it at Conference Center A, but because the event has become so successful, you needed a space with bigger capacity, so after searching for 4 months, your negotiated an excellent deal with Conference Center B.
B: Say, “Conference Center B.”

If you answered any question A’s (even one!) – yeah, you’re bad at answering direct questions. You might think you know how to answer a simple question, but you are not only annoying and exhausting people, you’re also wasting their time.

If you also find yourself thinking, “No, but wait. These questions aren’t fair. I wouldn’t answer A or B, really; I’d need more information to provide a thorough answer.” — then oh, please for the love of Mike stop already. You have a really, super-serious problem. You can’t answer a simple direct question directly. Don’t make this about the asker: it’s your problem.

Yes, people will often ask open-ended questions when they have time and want to explore your insights. However, they might ask direct questions when they are pressed for time or need direct answers. In those situations, your tendency to mull over every possible outcome and preemptively answer every question they didn’t think to ask becomes an enormous drag.

But why are you doing this? Why can’t you succinctly and truthfully answer direct questions as they are posed? It’s likely that you have one or all of these 3 conditions:

1) You’re hiding something; quite possibly even lying. People who have something to hide often fail at being direct. If you don’t think your prices are reasonable, you’ll try to rationalize before telling someone the cost. If you worry that your spouse is going to be mad at you for being late, you’ll hide behind a pile of excuses that sound reasonable. You can probably make that one o’clock meeting: you just don’t want to, so you play coy. Every time you fail to directly answer a simple question, you’re actually leaking what you’re trying to hide. Your audience becomes suspicious. They sense that you are hiding something or being less than truthful. After all, you’re not answering their question: you’re answering a question that points at the root of what it is that you are trying to hide. You might think you’ve cleverly deceived them, but they know you’re hiding something. You’ll serve yourself and your audience better by simply being direct.

2) You’re deeply insecure. As such, you feel that any direct question puts you on the spot. Before you answer, you feel you must establish your credibility. You’ll perform calculations, dive into deep background, explain your positioning, or start bragging about your accomplishments, activities, or relationships. You feel that the asker really needs to know how clever, important, or successful you are: otherwise, how can they trust you when you say the meeting is in Conference Room B? And the idea of simply saying “I don’t know” fills you with a certain terror: how can you admit that you don’t know something without dying of shame on the spot? However, when you brag, calculate, or over-explain: what you are really doing is telegraphing insecurity to your audience. Be aware of this tendency you have. Practice answering direct questions directly. If askers need more information, let them follow up with other questions. See how secure that makes you look? If they ask you how much your product costs and you say, “$59” — let them follow up with other questions if they want. Resist your urge to chatter needlessly about background information they neither asked for nor want.

c) You’re a man, and a woman is asking the question. If you’re a man, go ahead and re-read the above 5 questions. First, imagine that a man is asking you the question. Then, imagine a woman is asking the question. If you suspect that you’d answer differently depending upon the gender of the asker, it’s up to you to deal with your bias. As a man, society has conditioned you to believe that women need more information, or that they didn’t really ask the right question, so you’d better answer the question they didn’t ask. Or you might even be puffing yourself up, trying to make yourself seem more knowledgeable or more important than you are. Or you might be terrified of saying “I don’t know” to a woman, for fear that she will see you as less than omnipotent. Relax! She already knows that you’re a pompous windbag, so there’s no need for you to prove it. Sadly, the typical advice is for women to sit and listen politely to your unnecessary bullshit. But once again, this is your problem, not hers. Instead of asking her to change, acknowledge that we live and work in a horribly gender biased environment, and work on fixing your own bias problem. Be aware that dithering and fussing haplessly around women is an issue for many men. If you catch yourself failing to directly answer a simple question when a woman asks it, just stop yourself, then directly answer her question. Over time, you’ll find yourself flailing less when dealing with women. You’ll also seem more confident, and like less like an obnoxious twit.

Try it. If you’re a babbler or over-explainer — force yourself to directly answer direct questions. If the asker wants more information from you, let them follow up and ask it.

Don’t make this hard. It’s really super simple. You can do this!

Coaching crisis Education video

Team Building & Crisis Communication Fundamentals

I hope you never experience a crisis. But when you do, be prepared.

Introducing Crisis Communication Fundamentals, my latest online course. It’s available now in the content library.

Crisis Communication FundamentalsI felt inspired to write this course because I’ve watched people struggle to figure out how to communicate when something unexpected and unpleasant strikes their organization. My aim is to reduce the panic that people can feel when something goes wrong.

When you take a little time to prepare, you’re on your way to learning how to communicate calmly, quickly, and confidently. My hope is that this course will help you drill on the fundamentals in a way that engages and inspires your crisis communication response teams.

You can take this course alone, or use it as a team building or class exercise. Watch the videos, download the exercise files, and complete each step-by-step activityIf you’re a PR or communication professor interested in the flipped classroom approach, try reviewing this course to see if it will work as part of your lesson plan. 

And even if don’t think you’re involved in crisis communication, think again. I recently published You Might Be in Crisis Communication — And Not Know It.  At some point, everyone experiences a crisis.

It helps to think through how you’ll respond; not just as an individual, but as an organization. Take some time to prepare. I hope you can prevent a bad situation from becoming worse — and that you’ll feel prepared to respond with confidence.


When making a surprise announcement, don’t say this…

You made a surprise announcement. You didn’t drop a bombshell.

I’m more than a little strung out when I hear those in the news media say something like, “Mr. Peacock dropped a major bombshell at Wince Country Club today. We’ll give you details after the break.”

Instantly, my mind goes to actual bombs. Wounded people. Deaths. Injuries.

Yes. That’s what dropping a bombshell on a golf course can literally do. And yes, the news anchor got my attention by using this phrase. But they tricked me. They used the figurative ‘bombshell’ term to basically hype a story about a longtime country club owner who announced that he would be selling his golf course.

That’s not a bombshell. That’s grim, ghoulish, and irresponsible journalism.

We’re a community. We’re a home to refugees from war torn countries. We are members of the armed services and aid volunteers, or friends and families with those who have served. We’ve been hurt by terrorists, or comforted those who have been harmed by terrorist attacks.

Continuing to use the figurative ‘bombshell’ phrase for non-violent situations shows a lack of sensitivity and empathy for a diverse audience.

You made a surprise announcement. You didn’t drop a bombshell.

Coaching crisis

Spin doctors gotta spin…

Public relations pros don’t like the word spin. Call one a “spin doctor” and that’s a low blow. A rude insult.

So how can we put a better spin on our profession? As a child, my mom gave me this piece of life advice: “Don’t call people names they don’t want to be called.”

However, she meant me to take this advice only in the context of oppressed people. It’s never OK to target an oppressed person with a rude name. However, calling privileged people names might be unflattering– but it also might be part of a strategy to elicit attention and needed social change.

It can actually be helpful to call a privileged group of people unflattering names. A powerful person or group may pout of at least make a show of feeling offended — but their elite status means that a rude name can’t really hurt them.

Calling PR pros “spin doctors” can’t hurt us. It can, however, remind us that we need to take responsibility for an industry-wide tendency to manipulate words and media in a way that can be an abuse of power.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment (based on a real-life example!) that examines the kind of tactic that earns PR practitioners that nasty ‘spin’ label. Let’s say a student receives a stern lecture from her PR professor for using the word ‘spin’. The prof scolds the young woman in front of class, rebuking her for daring to use that inflammatory word.

The bold young student counters:

“But isn’t ‘crafting an articulate post-crisis positioning statement’ just spin for the word ‘spin’?” she might ask.

The annoyed professor responds: “No. No it’s not. Don’t be impudent. The word spin is offensive. Just don’t let me catch you using it, ever.”

The student is effectively censored. The professor has the power. The student doesn’t. She cannot realistically continue a meaningful or instructive dialog, for fear of grade backlash. The student simply learns she can no longer use the word ‘spin’ in front of this professor. But the real lesson she learns from this exchange is not lost on her …or the other students in class.

In class, the students have learned not to say ‘spin’ to this particular professor. Behind his back, they call him “Dr. Spinning.” He’s the PR pro who is unaware that he’s spinning ‘spin’, and unaware of what one group of key stakeholders think of him.

If you were the PR prof, how might you have more responsibly answered the young student’s question?

Coaching crisis fun

Why bother with a cover-up?

People in Washington say it’s not the initial offense that gets you in trouble. It’s the cover-up. They say you should admit what you did, get the story out, and move on. What this overlooks is the fact that most of the time the cover-up works just fine, and nobody finds out anything. I would imagine that’s the rule rather than the exception. My advice: take a chance. Lie.

-George Carlin

Is George Carlin right…again? If an internal investigation reveals that your organization has done something awful or embarrassing, should you really lie? Or try to cover it up?

I loved George Carlin. So cynical! So smart! And so funny!

My clients know that I don’t recommend a cover-up. Admit your mistakes. Show remorse. Take responsibility. Repair the damage.

However, I take Carlin’s point. Most of the time, lying and covering up worked pretty darn well for the rich and/or powerful in 2014.

I’ll take Carlin’s cynicism one step further:  is it even worth the time and energy it takes to cover something up? You might as well be brazen about your misdeeds and atrocities. People might be outraged for a few days, but they’ll quickly move on to something else.

After a while, the public may even like your organization a little more for giving them a reason to feel smug, self-righteous, and morally superior! Your misdeeds gave them a fun little outrage high. Eventually, they’ll make excuses for you or even defend your actions.

So why even bother to cover-up any of your organizational wrongdoings, ever?