Storytelling Insights

  • Esther Choy

How To Say the Hardest Things



This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on Leadfully.


In November 2004, Tysabri, a drug treatment for multiple sclerosis, received a rare boost from the FDA. Because the disease is so serious and the drug held so much promise, the FDA decided to fast-track Tysabri’s path to MS patients. A celebratory mood took hold at Biogen and Élan, the two pharmaceutical companies that collaborated on the project.


Three months later, everything froze. The FDA put all clinical trials of Tysabri on hold. They ordered the drug to be pulled from the market. Three patients had developed brain infections, two of them fatal.


Imagine yourself in the shoes of one of the leaders at Biogen or Élan.


How do you address your team at such a moment? How do you deliver such devastating news without torpedoing team morale for months to come?


At some point in their lives, every leader has to stand up in front of their team and deliver a tough message. Here’s what to do when that time comes.


  • Reflect on what the news looks like from your team’s perspective.You have a million anxieties swirling in your mind. But what are your teams’ concerns? Identify and acknowledge their top worries. A simple and powerful exercise mentioned in my book, Let the Story Do the Work, is called “Do-Know-Don’t-Know.” On a piece of paper or in an electronic document, create two columns. On one column, label it as KNOW. On the other column, label it as DON’T KNOW. Then, list everything that your team knows and everything that your team doesn’t know regarding the project. As you populate these two critical aspects of knowledge, you will begin to see and experience your team’s perspective like a powerful camera coming into focus. Armed with this shared perspective, you will be much more prepared to craft your message.

  • Anticipate the objections. When you search out and answer your audience’s objections briefly but with complete fairness and respect, you demonstrate that you have seen the situation from their point of view.

  • Choose your tone appropriately. It is a somber occasion. Make sure everything about your tone of voice and body language reflects that. How you say it is as important as what you say. Take for instance a study of how likely surgeons were to be sued. The study found that people who listened to very brief clips of surgeons talking were able to predict which surgeons would be sued—just because they used an arrogant, condescending tone! The wrong tone easily alienates your listeners.

  • Tell it like it is. Honesty wins trust. “When a leader is straightforward in saying the toughest stuff,” writes Erika Anderson in Forbes, “people assume (rightly) that he or she will be courageous in all kinds of essential ways.” So don’t skirt the issue. When the story that comes out later is the same as the story you share on day one, your team will see you as a person of integrity.

  • Remind your audience of the company’s values. Your team chose to work for your company for a reason. Now, more than ever, they need to be reminded of that reason. Share a brief, memorable story that conveys that vision in a way that is appropriate to the seriousness of the occasion.

  • Identify a path forward. Your team wants to know: What now? In moments like this, nothing seems as firm anymore—it’s up to you to create new footing that your people can walk on going forward.

In the end, Biogen and Élan had good news to announce. The FDA had found ways to manage the risks, such as screening patients for antibodies to the virus that caused the fatal brain infections. In patients without these antibodies, the risk was low. So, given Tysabri’s effectiveness in keeping relapses at bay and with safeguards in place, it came back on the market.


This announcement would be easier to make. And it, too, would be an opportunity to see things from the audience’s perspective and tell a story that could underscore the company’s vision.


Need to get your storytelling down to a science? Give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary communication training consultation today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide.

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!


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#BadNews #BusinessCommunication #Morale #leadfully

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