What do you do when you have to be the bearer of bad news to a large audience? You certainly don’t want to be the proverbially “messenger that gets shot!”


Today’s Q&A came via Facebook: What Your Body Says Fan page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatYourBodySays

QDear Sharon,
Can you refresh my memory? Which side of the stage do you recommend standing on when sharing bad news and which side do you recommend standing on to share good news. I remember we have talked about this, but can’t remember the details. Damn aging mind!

AThank you, “Jan” (I’ve changed her name) for asking the question. You are right to be aware that setting the stage with primary locations for specific “news” is important.  All too often, speakers just wander around without knowing the nonverbal messages they are sending.

As to your question: It’s not so much about an exact stage left or stage right. It’s an “X” marks the spot!

In order to answer Jan’s question, we have to ask a couple more questions:

Which way do you naturally stroll on stage? This isn’t aimless strolling. You never want to walk without a reason as your movement will cause all eyes to focus on you  —  movement has a way of doing that… which I’m sure you can see can be good if that’s your intention or not-so-good if you are aimlessly wandering about. But back to the question, when speakers move on stage, I’ve found most speakers have a preferred direction that they naturally turn first.

Are you limited by where you can go on the stage, e.g. a podium, projection screen, audio set-up, etc.? If there are no impediments on the stage, right-handed people tend to naturally prefer strolling right. If you prefer to stroll right, place the negative news location to your left. Left-handed people often prefer to stroll left, so place the negative news to your right.

Either way, you want to place the negative/bad news location in a place you don’t naturally wander because you want to go to the “bad news” location on purpose. Always go back to that same location for bad news during the speech.  If you speak to this group more than once, continue to use the same locations you set up during the first speech.

Unconsciously, people remember locations. When locations are used consistently, listeners see a speaker move to the “bad news” location and automatically think “Oh, she’s going to the bad news location, better prepare for bad news…” or in the case of the neutral or good news locations they will remember those too.

A refinement to using locations is to remember that good news is about going forward and out toward the audience and includes consistent eye contact and gestures towards the audience.

Good or neutral news has far more leeway as to what you can do nonverbally.  For “bad news,” intentionally go to your chosen bad news location and anchor the negative news to that location with a different vocal tone, along with different facial expressions and gestures away from the audience.

Gestures away from the audience can be to the stage sides, a flip chart, out a window or in a pinch, behind you. All movement that is away from the audience subconsciously indicates that it is away from, or not about the listener and is “back there” and will stay there.

Never gesture to an audience with bad news unless you want to assign the bad news to them. Why would you want to assign bad news to an audience? Assign the bad news to the audience only if you want them to feel scolded, guilty or otherwise responsible for the bad news.

You want the bad news to stick to the location – not you though. To accomplish that, finish what you have to say at that “bad news” location. Do not move to the next location and say something like: “Well, now that we are done with that…” or accidentally stroll through your negative location. Both will contaminate you and the entire stage.  Think of it as if you were dragging the bad news around the stage with you like toilet paper stuck to your shoe….

If you drag the bad news around it will stick to you and in turn, it will be about you. With that, there is an increased likelihood that you will become the messenger that “gets shot.”

It’s much better to be seen only as the unfortunate bearer of bad news. The consistent, continued use of a bad news location is what changes what the news gets anchored to. So, after delivering the bad news, walk away from the “bad news” location in silence, without making eye contact with your audience.

When you finish transferring from the bad to the neutral or good news location, pause at the new location a few seconds and then pop up as a whole new person and make eye contact. Smile, if appropriate. Start with new topic. This “pop” will establish that you, the speaker, are done with the bad news and that you are moving on to more important stuff.

Always walk confidently from location to location.
Let me know how the talk goes Jan!
Have a great day whatever your adventure.

p.s. If it’s a large stage, besides “bad,” “good” and neutral locations, remember to move to both sides to encompass each member section of the audience to have everyone feel they have been seen and included in the “conversation.”

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