image of sign that says confidence

Confidence in Crisis: The Confident Communicator

November 29, 2018

Critical takeaways

  • Communicators must be able to deliver advice and guidance with confidence in a critical moment. This can be hard when the situation is dynamic and changes rapidly.
  • Confidence must be based on a shared level of preparedness and ability, rather than bravado which can mask a preparedness gap.
  • A combination of preparation, adaptability, experience and keeping things simple will help develop confidence allowing communicators to be more effective in a critical moment.

As counselors and crisis communications advisors, whether as outside consultants or members of an executive team, we are intimately involved in the decisions of what to do next in a critical moment or crisis situation. We have to bring our unique understanding of the external environment into the discussion to help advise and support the CEO, no matter how difficult that reality might be to face up to. For the most part, we are drawing on our insight and experience as well as gut instinct to offer the best advice and counsel that we can. It’s based on an understanding of stakeholders, the culture of the company and the company’s tolerance for risk and disruption.

This strategic understanding sets the stage for us to deliver confident and actionable information in a crisis.

However, it’s been my experience that confidence can often exceed capability due to a lack of preparation. And it seems that my concerns are not ill-founded.

Deloitte conducts an annual survey of crisis readiness and preparedness and recent results uncovered a huge gap between confidence and capability. One example cited was that 90% of organizations felt confident in their capability to respond to a corporate scandal yet only 17% had actually trained and prepared for this kind of situation.

This brings to mind a cheeky quote I’ve used previously. “Often wrong, never in doubt.”

Obviously, this isn’t meant as a compliment so we need to find a way to close any gap between misplaced confidence and competence.

However, in addition to this gap, another challenge in a crisis is the dynamic, changing nature of ‘reality’. Unlike periods of normality, a crisis is a fast-moving situation where things will change rapidly. The ‘truth’ of the situation as it was in the morning is no longer the case by noon and it takes a significant amount of time to develop a full understanding of the situation. Therefore, it can become easy to second-guess yourself and hedge your advice which erodes both your confidence and the confidence others will have in your decisions.

This is where another quote comes to mind. Paul Saffo coined the phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” to express an approach to decision-making in dynamic, changing situations. Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape and now a Silicon Valley VC, cites this mindset as key to being able to innovate successfully.

Faced with these challenges, how do we as crisis communicators deliver actionable advice to our corporations with confidence in a critical moment?

I have identified four ways to help overcome misplaced confidence while also allowing you to remain confident despite the uncertainty in a crisis or critical moment. These techniques will allow you to develop the right kind of confidence to help deliver advice crisply and effectively.


First of all is Prepare. The best way to develop your crisis skills is through experience (more on that in a moment) but that’s not always possible. However, preparation through study, training and realistic simulations is almost as good.

Excellent crisis communicators have experience with crises but they also always learning: thinking about crisis, benchmarking what others are doing, studying new ‘best practices’, and reading case studies from other organizations. They conduct simulations to understand how their team, senior leaders, legal and other disciplines within their organization are going to react. They are always learning and preparing.
So the first and most important way to have confidence is to close that ability gap and to banish the bravado that Deloitte identified. This foundation of skills and abilities is also what allows you to address the first part of Saffo’s maxim, developing strong opinions. Your preparation gives you the experience and understanding to be able to decipher what is happening and make judgements calls in a fast moving and confusing situation.

But you need to start preparation today. Tomorrow or next week will be too late. If you wait to prepare until you’re confronted with a crisis, it’s definitely too late.

Acknowledge reality

The second thing is to acknowledge reality. Too often we see leaders deny the facts that are staring them in the face. Some will even refuse to accept that they are actually being confronted with a critical moment.

Even when you accept that you are in crisis, it can be difficult to adapt to a dynamic situation. People often struggle to accept that the situation keeps changing and there is an inertia to their thinking. They end up anchored to the ‘facts’ as these were first explained to them – facts that have long-since evolved into something else.

This is where the second part of Saffo’s concept applies because your commitment to the reality of the situation must be loosely held. That way, as the situation changes, you drop any preconceptions or assumptions that are no longer relevant and update your understanding of reality. This can be a difficult balance to maintain because you need to hold those strong convictions and maintain your confidence in your decisions, right up until the moment that you need to change.

A key way to achieve and maintain this confidence is to have a clear idea of the desired end state in mind. While others are becoming wound up in the minute-by-minute minutiae of the situation, you want to be the calm, cool head that is looking at the width and the breadth of the whole situation.

This means that instead of focussing on the action and tactics, you keep your eye on the outcome and overall objective. This allows you to separate the solvable from the unsolvable, to acknowledge what’s in your control to fix and to commit to a plan to take you towards your objective. That way, as the situation changes, you can adapt tactics but your overall strategy – the roadmap to success – will remain broadly the same.

Learn from experience

As I noted above, the best way to learn is through being involved in crises. You can deliver insights and advice with much more confidence if you learn from the experience. The adage that we love is:

“The crucible of crisis doesn’t develop your leadership, it reveals it.”

So when you have the opportunity, learn from crisis. Onboard what you learn, “sharpen the saw” and grow from the experiences that you’ve had. Conduct your own after-action review and ask yourself how you did. Sore the assumptions you made and the advice that you gave. Where were you right and where were you wrong. Not necessarily wrong in the sense that you couldn’t forecast what was going to happen but wrong in that you didn’t make the optimum call based on the information available.

Take each experience as an opportunity to learn for yourself and with your team, so that you can be as ready as possible the next time your skills are required.

Keep it simple

The final trait of confident communicators is in some regard the easier but feels the hardest. KISS – keep it stupid simple. Communicate clearly and consistently and stay disciplined. If the message, approach and understood reality are clear and working, don’t overcomplicate things. Being simple takes real confidence because it can be tempting to try to seek ‘bonus points’ for something clever or innovative. But a clear story, told well and told simply is more powerful and compelling.

Moreover, keeping thing simple gives you an agility that will allow you to adapt as the situation changes and you have to respond to a new reality.

Confidence, not bravado

Confidence in a crisis comes not from a misplaced sense of our own abilities but rather from a deep-seated understanding of the abilities and skills of our team and ourselves. Preparation, adaptability, experience and keeping things simple will allow us to express strong, confident opinions on the best course of action in a crisis. This closes the worrying gap between confidence and ability and reduces – but won’t eliminate – the number of times we will be wrong. And even when we are wrong, we can quickly adapt to a new reality and move forward with confidence.

Filed under: Crisis Leadership


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.