When you don’t know…. communicate uncertainty

If you don’t say something, then people will start to fill in the gaps themselves. Stay in control of your story by learning to communicate uncertainty when there’s nothing to say yet.

Header image showing uncertainty

In a crisis or a change situation, as leaders (or communicators) we are often in the situation where:

  • We don’t know the answer yet
  • We haven’t decided what to do yet
  • We can’t say yet (for a particular reason)
  • We don’t want to say yet (for a particular reason)

Unfortunately, not saying anything when employees, customers or the public expect you to say something can have a really bad effect on your reputation, staff morale and productivity… and ultimately the organisation’s profit or funding sources.

If you don’t say anything, the chances are that people will start to speculate, rumours will circulate and then it can be really hard to reverse the adverse effects of this later.

No matter how secretive you are, eventually someone will notice that all the senior managers keep going into a room and coming out ashen-faced. If you don’t explain, people will start to make wild guesses.

In a reputation management situation, if you don’t say anything, then the media will begin to fill the void with their own ideas and speculations and the effect on your share price and future business could be devastating.

So what can you do about it?

Communicate uncertainty

If you can’t communicate answers yet, then try communicating uncertainty.

If you don’t have a plan yet then….

  • say so (that you can’t/won’t/don’t know),
  • say why (assuming you can/want to),
  • say when you will be able to give more info,
  • say what the various options might be, and
  • say when you’ll know which it will be.

Sometimes it’s fine to speculate. And if you’re nervous about doing so, remember that if you don’t, someone else will and their version is likely to be even more wide of the mark than your educated guess will be.

For example, you might decide to say,

“We are thinking of doing A and thinking of doing B. We don’t know for sure and probably won’t know until C happens. If D happens then we are more likely to go down route A. If E happens, we will need to come up with a plan C.”

…you get the idea.

So next time you are stuck for what you can say, please give this a try.

I’d love to hear your experiences of doing this in the comments below.

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If you’ve written about this topic too, please let me know.

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