murder board

Murder Board—It’s Not As Bad As It Sounds. How to Use Criticism to Prepare Your Team

When you have what seems like a game-changing idea, what do you do? You probably start by doing some low-stakes, crowdsourced testing. You tell trusted friends and family before taking the idea to friendly colleagues. Eventually, you get around to proposing the idea to those who can help you implement it.

When you go through this early testing phase, you’re looking mostly for validation. This can bolster your confidence, which is great if you’ve hit on a truly great idea. But how often have you watched an idea fizzle and die a slow death all the while wishing you had killed it sooner? This is one reason to seek not only validation, but criticism in the early stages.

In the investor relations and corporate communications world, we have a name for doing this in a formal setting: Murder Board. What is it and how does it work?

Murder Board in Context

The term murder board originated in the U.S. military, specifically from the Pentagon, but is also used in academic, journalistic, government appointment, and business contexts.

Here are a few recent examples:

Political Hearings: As soon as Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee, Ronny Jackson, was scheduled to go before Congress for his confirmation hearing, officials began intense preparations, including murder board sessions. Reportedly, these sessions went on pretty aggressively during the past few weeks, but have probably slowed a bit now that the Senate has postponed the hearing.

PR Crises: When Mark Zuckerburg went on his recent apology tour after agreeing to testify in front of Congress, he was put through the wringer by a team of lawyers and outside consultants. In addition to a “crash course” in charm, Zuckerberg received a real grilling during murder board sessions. Essentially, his team created as identical an environment as possible and went through a series of real run-throughs of what’s likely to occur. These lengthy sessions were strictly private and videotaped for review and critique.

murder boardAlso, known as a “red team,” the murder board team’s main job is to poke holes. In the military, the red team tries to penetrate your defenses. In the high tech world, the red team tries to hack into your system. In short, the murder board finds the problems, risks, and bugs that the insiders miss. In high stakes situations, murder board sessions can save you from making a terrible mistake.

Why Is It important?

Murder board sessions might seem like overkill. It’s easy, especially for less experienced spokespeople, to believe that they are prepared for Q&A. But until they have practiced responding to questions under pressure, your preparation is not complete. So, make sure you impress upon your team the importance of setting up a murder board.

1. Prepares you for real-world experience and Q&A.

It’s helpful to consider worse-case scenarios before facing one in real life, so you can strategize as a team. Otherwise, you risk your spokesperson going off script and saying something that makes matters worse. I want my executives and clients to face the toughest questions for the first time in the room with me, not in front of an investor, a client, or a camera. The preparation will remind your spokesperson to focus on the facts and not speculation.

2. Stress tests company-held beliefs.

When pitching an idea or trying out new messaging, It’s always hard to be objective. This is as true of individuals as it is of teams. When you really want to step outside of the echo-chamber of your firm, a murder board with external voices can help.

Use a murder board to test beliefs about:

  • Company preparedness—especially good for crisis communications
  • Messaging—Is your message really resonating?
  • Customer relations—What do we actually know about our customer?
  • The organization—Does our message really hang together? Where are the confusing parts?

3. Stress tests your sales team and sales message.

Role play scenarios with your sales team ahead of a high-stakes pitch. Ask questions such as: How could the meeting go off the rails? What are the toughest questions the client could ask? What are the worst responses to our message we could imagine? Murder board sessions will ensure your team arrives prepared and ready to keep the meeting productive.

4. Gets you away from group think.

The most important part of the murder board process is bringing in a fresh perspective, often that of the client or stakeholder. Forcing a team to consider worst case scenarios requires them to think critically and figure out how to defend their position. Alternatively, forcing them to consider the client or stakeholder view, helps identify any gaps or missing angles that need strengthening.

Murder board sessions are simply the most powerful way to ensure that your media relations, investor relations, or sales team are ready for high stakes interactions. If any of these teams are “winging” high stakes meetings, their lack of preparation could put the whole firm at risk. So, let’s talk about when and how to use a murder board.

When to Use a Murder Board

A murder board can be used for any written or oral communications. It’s all about ideas and messaging. Here are three areas where a murder board can be most beneficial for improving communications.

1. Preparing for crisis situations.

If your firm has never had to deal with a full-on crisis, consider yourself fortunate. But also realize that your big crisis could be lurking just around the corner. It’s always a good idea to have a plan for dealing with a crisis and murder board sessions can play an important role in such a plan.

Assemble your damage control murder board and have them begin identifying issues and vulnerabilities within the company. It’s best if you can assemble a team who understands both the media and your firm’s weak spot. Next, have the team work on questions and ideal answers. These should be the toughest questions they can come up with and the best possible answers based on the facts. Finally, refine the answers and work to prep spokespeople.

2. Preparing for investors.

Murder boards are also great prep for analyst meetings, especially one-on-one meetings where executives need to be on top of their game. Here you’ll want to focus on both the message as well as recalling key company metrics.

For this one you’ll want to call in your toughest internal financial analysts and encourage them to live out their wildest inner Shark Tank dreams. Assemble your investor relations murder board and have them begin coming up with “tricky” questions regarding different angles on the numbers.

For example, suppose your firm calls for 10% year-to-year growth with sounds amazing, unless your biggest competitor comes out with an expected 15% growth rate. Now you’re behind in the investor’s eyes. What does it mean for your business and key competitive differentiators?

3. Preparing for customers.

Customers can be one of the toughest audiences. Murder board sessions are great training for sales teams. Use these sessions to prep them for their sales calls, a big pitch, or proposal presentation.

Assemble your customer relations murder board by having sales people role play with each other. Have newer salespeople play the “customer” role first to test the more experienced team members. Besides the benefits of being prepared for hard questions, this kind of exercise forces salespeople to put themselves in their customer’s shoes.

Final Thoughts

A murder board is an effective way to test your firm’s communications skills in a close to real-world situation. For high stakes interactions, there is no better preparation. Remind your team, though, that this is NOT a hazing experiment designed to throw off another team member. The point is to prepare your team, better understand your messaging, and better relate to key stakeholders.

One way to ensure that you get an objective perspective is to bring in an expert from outside your firm. Audacia Strategies can be that expert voice. We’ve prepared teams for investor meetings, crisis communications, and high stakes business transformations. We’ll help you put on your game face!

Photo credit: racorn / 123RF Stock Photo

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