One of the myths about making presentations is that you should never start negative. I take some umbrage with that notion, but need to add a few caveats.
If you have to deliver bad news within your presentation, the strongest place to do it is in the opening. For example, let’s say you are in construction and a client asked you to present a plan to build a project for them under certain specs and budget parameters. The problem is that their budget was not realistic. You can either do half of what they want within budget; or, do the entire job with sub-par materials and construction to meet their goal. A poor scenario either way. So, something has to give.
The place to raise that negative issue is right in the beginning of the presentation. It would be unfair and unwise to present a construction plan that far exceeds the budget and not reveal that issue until the end of the meeting. The client will have her hopes shattered at that point. Whereas, indicating the issue in the beginning changes the nature of the meeting to a discussion about which areas are best to compromise on and which areas are must-haves. It’s something that requires both sides to bat it around. That’s an incredibly valuable discussion.
Here’s how that might sound: “Judy, today we want to present our thinking for your new addition. But we ran into an issue soon after we started the process. Given all of the things you asked for, we can’t meet your budget request without doing inferior work, which neither of us wants. Instead, we put a budget together that achieves your goals under our most efficient scheme, but it’s still 22% more than budget. We want to walk you through that entire plan, and then together discuss what is important and which areas we can cut.”
Tackling that thorny issue right up front makes a demonstration to the client about your honesty and value. You’re not playing games. You are on her side trying to work out the issues in the best possible way. You will be seen as more valuable to the team when you do this.
There is a danger starting with a negative issue, however. Human beings often assume a certain posture and tone when they talk about difficult issues or bad news. We smile less. We are less animated. Our body language is hunched over, not the strong posture one should have. Even the voice becomes more monotone and softer. Further, there is the danger that a down persona will carry over into the rest of the presentation, in which you have more upbeat information.
Here is my recommendation. Instead, of looking at this scenario as a negative (you are presenting disappointing news to the client), look at it as a positive (you are doing your job bringing value to the client on a thorny issue). And, because you are doing your job, you should have strong posture, animated hands and arms and no sad-dog look on your face. You should be proud that you have identified a problem that can be addressed now, rather later on when it becomes very costly to both sides to fix.
The client will see you as a strong, problem solver that she can rely on.
Ps: Years ago when I was an account executive at an advertising agency, we gained a new retail account. It was a major win. After a number of meetings and development, we still hadn’t nailed the new campaign. At some point, the client called me and asked why he hasn’t been shown the new work after all this time. I was tempted to make an excuse, but instead I gave him the bad news. “We’ve developed about 5 campaigns, and each one is worse than the next, so I didn’t want to show anything to you. I believe we have figured it all out and hope to have something for you next week.”
He was not only satisfied with that answer, but wrote to the President of the ad agency telling him that my honestly sealed our relationship. He had complete faith in me and the work we were going to show.
Pss: We did a terrific campaign. The first two weeks it ran business jumped and research indicated we were right on target to meet our awareness goals. Unfortunately, the wife of the owner didn’t care for the campaign and insisted we trash it. What makes advertising such a hard business is that it is based on individuals tastes, not research or testing.