We’ve all had that moment on an airplane where we experience turbulence. Within a few seconds, the pilot’s voice comes over the intercom. What are you listening for? You’re listening for reassurance through the uncertainty of turbulence.
With COVID-19 concerns around the globe, many business leaders are asking how they can communicate uncertainty both internally to their teams and externally to their clients. In addition to working with the airline industry on this topic, my team and I have worked with Fortune 500 companies around the world who need to manage high-stakes communications to various audiences simultaneously. Here are five steps we’ve found to be incredibly effective:
1. PAUSE AND BREATHE:
Before you start communicating to others, give yourself a minute. When you’re the most senior person in a room, your team takes its cues from you in terms of how to act and how to feel. Taking a moment to center yourself will ensure that you present a calm, rational force to your colleagues and clients. This applies over the phone or email as well. When you feel anxiety, you transmit that to others. A study of empathetic stress found that observing others experiencing stress could cause observers themselves to feel more stressed.
2. PUT YOURSELF IN YOUR AUDIENCE’S SHOES:
In public speaking, knowing your audience in advance is critical. In times of uncertainty, it’s paramount, regardless of the medium. Do a thorough strategic analysis of who you are communicating to. What are their concerns, questions or interests? The quicker you can address what’s on their mind, the quicker you will be able to calm them down. If you’re not addressing their most pressing interests, they might not even be listening to you.
3. DO YOUR RESEARCH:
In times of stress, misinformation can be especially destructive. Seek out credible sources of information, and read the information fully before distilling it into clear, concise language. Share those links with others, so that they too have a credible resource. As a faculty
member at Harvard, I appreciate that the university created a webpage with credible sources for more information and that it sends frequent emails with updates.
4. SPEAK CLEARLY AND CONFIDENTLY:
You can speak with confidence even without 100% certainty. You can confidently express doubt or uncertainty, while still sounding like you are in control of the situation. Communicate frequently with your audience, even without news to report, so that they know you are actively following the issue.
5. HAVE SPECIFIC NEXT STEPS:
In times of uncertainty, it’s helpful to provide your team with tangible action items. Discussing your own next steps or recommending next steps to your audience gives them a sense of control, so they feel like they’re contributing to stabilization. Use language such as, “Here are the steps we are taking” or “Here’s what you can do” to demonstrate action.
Communicating through uncertainty is an essential leadership skill. Use the steps above to first find your own sense of focus and then allow yourself to transmit that reassurance to others.
Allison Shapira teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School and is the founder and CEO of Global Public Speaking.