Communication professionals are asked to do their best work when the stakes are highest. You gather information from people with varying priorities and synthesize it all to generate the desired response from the organization’s stakeholders. Your ability to craft and deliver messages during stressful times can determine whether your organization lives to thrive another day.
When the press conference lights come on and the microphones are in place, remember: “If you’re OK, they’re OK.” In times of stress and uncertainty, people will look to their leaders and messengers to gauge how confident or concerned they should be.
Two independent research studies have confirmed that people are capable of judging the trustworthiness of others as quickly as in 100 milliseconds after seeing their faces, and 500 milliseconds after hearing their voices. When people see leaders who appear frazzled, unprepared, rushed or unfocused, they will react accordingly. Leaders who remain calm, composed and on message, and speak with a confident pace and tone, will be far more successful inspiring trust in their messages and in their organizations. Creating this composed impression is much easier when leaders believe in the message they are sharing.
Creating trust in the message
To generate this confidence in messaging, clearly establish the goals you need to achieve before you gather information for your communication. This research empowers you to refocus executives who may stray from messaging and to target productive information in your preparation conversations.
Once you obtain all the available information and begin to craft your messages, you may ask yourself, “Why should this message resonate with my audience?” The downside of this question is that it focuses on your perspective as a communicator, not your audiences’ perspectives, and can lead you to inadvertently increase the resistance you encounter.
Instead, ask yourself, “Why shouldn’t this message resonate with my audience?” This approach is not about focusing on failure. It is about taking every step to truly understand your audience’s perspective to maximize the persuasive impact of your presentation. The answers to this question transition you away from focusing on what you think you need to say toward what your audience likely needs to hear.
The challenge of communicating in stressful times
When people experience elevated stress levels, it becomes physiologically more difficult for them to trust other people—especially if they already felt they had reason to question a person’s motives, intentions or credibility. Stressful conditions typically cause people to hold on tightly to what they know or believe and to focus on what they don’t understand as they try to determine how it will affect them.
There are essentially two approaches for delivering persuasive statements: You can lead with your main point and then substantiate it, or you can lead up to your main point and conclude with it. You would generally use the first option when you are making a point that a friendly audience is likely to support. Conversely, it is more beneficial to use the second option when you are making a potentially controversial point to an audience that may not be as supportive.
People react most strongly to what they hear first. They typically enter conversations, or arrive at presentations, with preconceived assumptions and mental models. As soon as the presenter begins speaking, the attendees begin listening for information that confirms what they already believe. If the attendees quickly recognize information that aligns with ideas that define their own self-image, they are more likely to support what the speaker has to say. However, if the attendees initially hear information that contradicts ideas they hold closely to their self-image, they are more likely to begin resisting the presenter’s message.
If you have any reason to doubt how your audience will receive your main point, lead to it—not with it. This approach may be counterintuitive for some communicators, and it can be a difficult strategy to execute when the speaker is under stress. However, when handled well, stressful situations can also solidify perceptions of credibility and trustworthiness.
With the baseline established for strategically preparing and structuring critical messages, here are seven additional tips for increasing the persuasive impact of these messages in stressful times.
Word choice matters
Words generate emotions. Emotions drive actions. Critical messages should include words that accurately deliver the message without creating counterproductive emotional reactions, especially under stressful conditions. Before delivering your message, review your notes and ask yourself if you see any words or statements that could potentially generate unnecessary emotional responses from their audience. Taking the time to change these words prior to sharing the message can limit unintended consequences.
Frame your message around universally accepted concepts
In most situations, there are several foundational concepts that your audience will accept, or will at least be hard for your audience to argue with. When messages are framed around these concepts, they achieve early buy-in from the majority of their audience, capitalize on the opportunity to build a sense of unity within the audience, limit defensive reactions and focus their audience’s attention on what is most important before discussing the details of their message.
Focus on your audiences’ perspectives
In many communication scenarios, the audience members care more about how the issues at hand impact them personally. Illustrating an understanding of the audience’s likely interests and concerns in the early stages of the communication helps build rapport between communicators and their audiences and sets the expectation that communicators will address these concerns in their forthcoming messages.
State the why before the what
Two opposing considerations make this a superior approach. First, people are predisposed to prefer, and defend, their ideas over the ideas of others. Second, people commonly have an insatiable desire to protect their self-images. When people observe messages that contradict their own thoughts and self-images the results can be disastrous. When professional communicators state the why before the what they allow their audience members to align their self-images with “why,” which reduces their defensive inclinations and increases the likelihood they will accept the “what.”
Professional communicators can often anticipate what most likely challenges, objections and counterpoints their messages will generate. All too often they ignore these while they are constructing their messages and walk right into them during their communication. In many situations, the best approach is to defuse these challenges before they can be offered. When these contentious points are referenced first, they demonstrate the messenger’s awareness and seize the opportunity to direct the narrative in a productive direction. It limits the opportunity for audience members to challenge them later, creating the opportunity to link any future challenging question back to their initial points and potentially taking the power away from antagonistic audience members.
Leverage experts and examples
Don’t be fooled: data is debatable. All too often professional communicators will attempt to reinforce their statements by incorporating facts. Audience members with opposing opinions may seize the opportunity to question the validity of this data to undermine the communicator. The best way to insulate yourself from this counterattack is to increase the power of their data points before they share them.
You can do this by illustrating the credentials of the source of the data or the process that was used to create it. Illustrate who else relies on this information and what they rely on it for. Should any resistance still arise, these techniques allow communicators to respond by focusing on the credibility of the data sources instead of debating the actual data points.
Stay within your circle
No matter how well crafted a message is, challenges, opposing opinions and unanticipated new information will likely arise. Before you step up to the microphone or hit send, be very clear on the central components of your message. Know the critical concepts you will build your responses around—before you need to respond.
Their circles may be comprised of a central line they want to reinforce. Their circles may involve important data points, their desired future states or central issues they are working to resolve. By establishing their circle prior to delivering their message, you create your fallback position should you face any unexpected challenges. This extra step allows you to respond without hesitation, remain calm and continue to exhibit the composed leadership presence you’re striving for.
Communication professionals typically share messages with the goal of changing our audience’s behavior—to inspire them to act in a desired manner or steer them away from acting in an undesired manner. When audiences comply with these messages, their behavior changes are temporary and remain susceptible to opposing interests.
When audiences commit to these messages, however, their behavior changes last far longer and remain resistant to opposing interests. This sense of commitment is achieved when messages are designed with a strategic approach that focuses on the necessary outcomes, accurately incorporates their audiences’ perspectives, are carefully composed with the appropriate messaging language and encourages their audience members to protect their self-images while committing to changing their behavior. If you’re OK, they will be OK, and they’ll think, feel and do what you need them to.