I learned an interesting new meeting strategy yesterday, while trying to figure out a way to break some bad news to one of our clients.
The situation, in a nutshell, was this: we have a major website launch scheduled for the middle of next week, and we were supposed to present our close-to-final version of the website and all its content yesterday afternoon. We’d spent most of the last two weeks revising and editing based on client feedback, and this presentation was supposed to be the fruition of those efforts.
Naturally, 15 minutes before the big meeting I discover that none of the dozens of content changes they requested had actually been done, and with only 6 days left before the launch, that was Pretty Bad News. (They had called this meeting specifically to go over the content.)
So the problem now was: how do I go through this meeting, presenting a close-to-final version of a website that is anything but close-to-final, and still make it look like I had a better than vague idea of what the hell I was doing.
The solution turned out to be pretty cute. My opening spiel went something like this, with additional information in the numbered list following:
"Hi everyone, we’re meeting today to discuss the close-to-final version of our shopping cart system. First, let me start with the bad news (1). We had a minor technical disaster yesterday evening (2) and could not work on any of the changes you requested in our last meeting (3). I feel really bad about this because D spent 3 hours the other day (4) showing us all the things we needed to change and I feel like I wasted his time. As you can see, the website is practically unchanged from the last version you saw. (5)"
(1) Always start with the bad news because you need to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Don’t hide it or downplay it. If possible, exaggerate it.
(2) The minor technical disaster being that I had had a little bit too much to drink and had completely forgotten to check the status of the website.
(3) This was a lie. We actually had been able to work on some of the changes, but it’s usually better to generalize here so that you don’t look like you’re making a pathetic attempt to "look on the bright side."
(4) This was the killer line, because it immediately made D (their IT head) look like a tragic hero. D interjected at this point: "Well, in fairness, I did ask for A LOT of changes," and got brief laughter from the rest of the management committee.
(5) This was the closer, and was the point at which I actually showed them the site. I had had 15 minutes prior to the meeting to make some superficial changes to the front page, and I made them as loud as possible so the client couldn’t possibly miss it. Because the handful of changes I had picked were so obvious, they started thinking that we were progressing after all, albeit at a slower pace than anticipated.
The key here was to a) make D look good in front of his bosses (and thus win him over as an ally) and to b) make things sound worse than they actually were and then slowly build up the audience’s spirits throughout your presentation. By the time the meeting ended, everyone had pretty much forgotten that they had just witnessed A Major Fuckup on our part, and were excited to see the progress again the following week.