October 3, 2011

Is weak language killing your presentation?

In a post last week, I suggested addressing your audience's fears and concerns up front. Today I want to talk about how your use of language can assuage those fears or exacerbate them.

Here's how a client recently described her business in the presentation she was practicing to give to superiors: "It's not going to be our best year ever, but it's going to be a growth year."

In this instance, the speaker wants to focus on what IS, not what ISN'T. If she first says it's not going to be a good year, that's what her listeners will focus on. She needs to leave that out altogether and just talk about the growth.

Another client mentioned how a new employee had "not exactly hit the ground running," but was doing well in her job now.

Again, the speaker wants to talk about how well the employee is doing NOW, not how she had a slow start three months ago. What IS: Employee doing well. What ISN'T: Employee having a slow start. To the boss who wants to know how the business is doing, slow starts are a reason for concern, while an employee who is succeeding in her position is reassuring.

In a newsletter from our local cheese shop the other day, I read this:

"Our friends at [Nearby Creamery] just released their newest cheese, and I gotta say, it’s actually really good."

Saying the cheese is "actually" good implies that the writer thought it wouldn't be good (not to mention the "I gotta say," which implies that she is reluctantly making the statement.) This diminishes the news that "We are carrying a great new cheese you'll want to buy." In this case, the owner of the cheese store isn't trying to assuage her readers' fears, but at the same time is barely giving real praise to the product. Halfhearted praise isn't the way to get customers in the store to buy your new item.

Another thing to watch out for in your presentation is language that overemphasizes the negatives. When sharing bad news with your audience, you -- of course -- want to be honest, direct and straightforward. You don't want to hide anything or try to obscure any information or data that would help your audience understand the issue.


You also don't want to go on and on, finding new ways to say the same distressing thing over and over.

Example: "I know in the past we've had some problems with the health department, but we've figured out how to work with the city now. So even though our relationship with the health department wasn't great before and we had a hard time during every inspection, we're doing better in our communications and compliance." Is it necessary to beat this dead horse about the bad relationship with the health department? No. Say it once, make it clear that there has been a problem, but it has been resolved.

Another example: "Last year we didn't have the right people in place to make improvements happen. Our leadership team fell apart and we were stuck with only two people who knew what they were doing. It was really hard, with the economy and with the turnover. Several new hires didn't work out. Now we have the right people to lead us in a new direction." The problem with going on and on about the same issue (and adding new ones that may or may not be relevant) is that you start to sound like you're making excuses. "It's hard." "The economy is bad." "We didn't have enough people to do the job."

These might all be legitimate reasons why the company struggled, but your audience will now dwell on these negatives, fearing they'll continue happening and having little faith that anything will change. Instead, be very specific about the problem: "We lost three critical employees, forcing us to put our new initiatives on hold. With the new staff we've brought in in the last three months, the initiatives are back on track."

1. Keep your language strong and positive.

2. Don't overemphasize the negatives.

3. Focus on what IS rather than what ISN'T.

4. Instead of saying "Blah blah bad thing, but blah blah good thing," just say, "Blah blah good thing."

These language shifts will encourage your audience to see the positive in what you're saying while understanding the negatives as well.

What are your tips for making a "bad news" presentation more positive?

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