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how to break bad news, nicola sturgeon, pink elephant communications

Breaking bad (news well)

The speech lasted 20 minutes.

It delivered everything I feared.

And the opposite of what I desired.

She told me my family had to stay out of my house.

I could forget lunches or coffees out.

Cinemas would close, along with gyms.

And travel to my seaside golf course was banned by law.

How did I react?

I felt the First Minister deserved a round of applause.

Having delivered a masterclass in how to break bad news well.

Read on.

Leading by example

how to break bad news, leading by example, pink elephant communications

Nicola Sturgeon’s communication skills have been recognised around the world.

And regularly in this blog, too.

But it takes something special to deliver bad news and still win plaudits.

Here’s how she did it.

Broken down into five principles.

1. Build your case

how to break bad news, nicola sturgeon covid, pink elephant communications

First, she set out the facts.

The “stubbornly high” cases of Covid, despite local restrictions.

Rising numbers in Central Scotland.

Falling numbers in other parts.

The NHS’s capacity to cope in populated areas now under threat.

So time to step up sanctions where needed.

2. Be direct

how to break bad news, be direct, pink elephant communications

The case was delivered without sugar-coating.

Just what needed to be done.

And when the numbers quoted were alarming, adjectives were unnecessary.

It was the opposite of spin.

3. Stay positive

how to break bad news, nicola sturgeon, stay positive, pink elephant communications

The goal was to take the medicine now.

To allow families to meet at Christmas.

Vaccines are coming.

But action now means the country is ready and healthier when they arrive in the Spring.

Almost every word of the roughly 10,000 she spoke was positive, despite the situation.

She concentrated on what had happened.

As well as what was happening, and what would happen.

Rather than what wasn’t happening.

Avoiding our Pink Elephants.

4. Acknowledge frustration

how to break bad news, nicola sturgeon scotland, pink elephant communications

Her acknowledgement of what this meant to restaurants, small shops, hairdressers and people’s liberties was sincere.

At one point, showing her vulnerability, she said how much she ‘hated’ making these announcements.

And I believed her.

5. Remember the Three Rs

nicola sturgeon, how to break bad news,, pink elephant communications

She concluded by saying how sorry she was to increase restrictions.

How necessary they were to save lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

And how we could all look forward to vaccines and testing leading us back to normality.

We call it the Three Rs.

Regret – Reason – Remedy.

There’s another blog on it here.

And it’s necessary to use when people are upset or frustrated.

How to break bad news

how to break bad news, colin stone, pink elephant communications

Many of us will need to learn how to break bad news in the months ahead.

To colleagues and suppliers and to family and friends.

So follow these five steps:

  • Build a case.
  • Be direct.
  • Stay positive.
  • Acknowledge frustration.
  • Remember the Three Rs.

People may dislike what you’re saying.

But they’ll find it very difficult to fault your handling of the situation.

It’s how to break bad news well.

And it’s part of what you’ll learn in the Pink Elephant Academy Media Masterclass.


Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos in How to break bad news blog by Scottish Government / CC BY-NC / on
Headline How to break bad news photo by Pink Elephant Communications.
How to break bad news blog edited by Colin Stone.

How to break bad news

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