A Good Strategy for Bad News

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Neither one of us knew how she would take the news, but it wasn’t going to be good. Our eight-year-old daughter was in for a shock – and we knew it.

Here’s how to use The New Elevator Pitch when the story is a tough one…

Bad news always hinges on the element of surprise – and usually it’s not the “Merry Christmas!” kind. All bad news pitches feature the Big Reveal – that one that almost always ends in the Big Disappointment. The element of the inevitable should give us all pause: really bad news is rarely expected. None can adequately prepare except the bearer of bad news. An update that no one wants to hear is always difficult to share – but it’s gotta be done.

So many scenarios can be extremely serious: firing someone, informing the patient of the test results, telling your spouse that you want a divorce… there are many others. Interestingly, the difficult conversation is the one that really calls for the New Elevator Pitch. The harder the conversation, the greater the need to be brief, clear and authentic. The situation with our daughter was no exception. In fact, it was as serious as anything she had faced in her young life.

You see, one of our pet hamsters had died.

Difficult news can be tough, wouldn’t you agree? For this scenario, I’ve chosen a story which is sad, but not exactly earth-shattering, to illustrate the finer points of delivering bad news. Instead of focusing on a deep tragedy, I thought it would be easier to use a scenario that we can all relate to – telling a child about the death of a pet – without being eclipsed by the emotions within the situation.

My hope is that the hamster’s tale (well, come to think of it: he didn’t have a tail, poor fella) will help you to draw your own conclusions around your story.

My daughter had spent the weekend at grandma’s house, and one of our beloved pets gave up the ghost on Saturday night. Now, it was Sunday – and we were bringing her home to tell her the news.

What could we do to inform her, without rocking her world? Was there any way to relay the message, without any pain?

  • Consider Your Audience – Remember, what we may consider as a minor event (the passing of a beloved pet) is major to an eight-year-old. Perhaps you have had to say goodbye to a special furry “family friend”; if so, you know the pain that can accompany such a sad goodbye. Parting with friends and loved ones is even more acute, and relaying the message requires that you consider your audience first and foremost. As concerned parents, we wanted to make sure our daughter was comfortable, and so we had the talk at our house – not in the car, or somewhere unfamiliar.

Parting ways with an employee, partner or spouse? Consider the method of delivery more than you have before, for this elevator speech. Don’t write an email, or send a text to start off the pitch. If you need to use electronic methods to set the appointment, then do so – without elaboration about the agenda. Get face-to-face, and face the issue together – there’s no other way to provide a ‘sneak peek’ at bad news. Protect your message, and protect the parties involved, by delivering the story in person.

  • Facing the Situation –Unfortunately, there’s no way to take the sting out of bad news. If you choose to lie, or otherwise water-down the truth, you simply postpone an even sharper pain when two discoveries are made at once (the real truth, and your deception). The mantra of “Don’t Duck” is key here, when delivering an unfortunate message. Like a shot at the doctor’s office, it’s best to get it over with and deliver the medicine. We’ll deal with the howling in a second…
  • Choose Your Words Carefully Language is vitally important in cases of unfortunate events. Set the stage with a message that establishes the right mood. Laughing and joking around are not part of this pitch. Your listener needs to know, now, that bad news is on the way. Call it out for what it is – a difficult conversation. A story that’s not going to be easy to tell, or to hear. Captivating the listener, in this case, shifts to capturing their attention. And then, getting to the tough stuff quickly.
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“While you were away,” I said, looking into my daughter’s eyes, “we found out some sad news. It’s hard to talk about it. But we need to tell you that yesterday, when we woke up, we saw that one of our hamsters had passed away.”


Almost as quickly as it had begun, the message was delivered – and the tears began. There was no timer, no two-minute drill. There was simply a respectful representation of the facts. What more could there be?

Sometimes the best pitches are the simplest – those are usually the most authentic.

Bad news is never easy, no matter what part you play in the story. Regrettably, bad news is like receiving a shot. It IS going to hurt, no matter what the doctor tells you. Sometimes, we have an opportunity to try and make it hurt less – but prolonging the news is just a delay. Keeping away from the matter at hand is a stalling tactic, a long-term “uhhhhhhhh…” that keeps you from saying what needs to be said. Beware of other stalling techniques (“I’m sorry” when you aren’t and the news can’t be helped, for example, just pours gasoline on the fire. Be authentic – even if it means keeping your mouth shut once the story has been told.)

What has helped you to deliver bad news?

Hamster image By hapinachu, used under creative commons.  Some rights reserved.  Seattle skyline photo by author.

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