Warren Buffett just gave a masterclass on how to do exactly that.
The scene was the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting Saturday. Every year around this time, people flock to Nebraska to hear from Buffett, the so-called "Oracle of Omaha."
Tthanks to Covid-19, this year's meeting was virtual-only. Buffett and one of his company's two vice-chairmen appeared on stage (without an audience).
There were surprises for sure, including a question for Buffett from shareholder and actor Bill Murray (posed remotely). But, at this time when people need wisdom and reassurance like no other, I think Buffett offered an excellent example for any business leader to follow.
'We've faced tougher problems'
The meeting ran more than four hours, and the full transcript runs more than 35,000 words.
If you wanted to pick out the most important words from Buffett's remarks, however, I think you can make a good case that it's a key passage that starts early--at about the 11th minute.
There are four parts to this two-minute passage. I'll quote from each part and show how they work together, below.
But, know that it all leads up to this reassuring conclusion: "[W]e've faced tougher problems. The American miracle, the American magic, has always prevailed, and it will do so again."
Here's why I think Buffett's remarks are worth emulating when you have to offer similar reassurances to your team.
1. They acknowledge the uncertainties.
Buffett starts out here by admitting upfront that these are very uncertain times, and despite his reputation as the "Oracle of Omaha," nobody can predict the future.
"[T]he range, the probabilities, or possibilities, and on the economic side are still extraordinarily wide," Buffett said. "We do not know exactly what happens when you voluntarily shut down a substantial portion of your society."
Reassurance depends on trustworthiness. Thus, any honest message to your stakeholders right now has to start with the acknowledgment that we just don't know a lot of things.
2. They acknowledge the emotions.
People are afraid right now. Maybe not Buffett; for one thing he's sometimes attributed his success to being aggressive when other people are afraid, and vice-versa.
But he acknowledges, the sidelining a huge portion of the workforce has meant "creating a huge amount of anxiety, and changing people's psyches, and causing them to somewhat lose their bearings in many cases, understandably."
In dealing with employees, customers, and other stakeholders, it's key to recognize that people are often driven by emotions even in the best of times. Right now, there's a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, and a lot of anger. You hope to help them get past that.
3. They're rooted in history.
I once analyzed all of Warren Buffett's shareholder letters, and found that the number-1 most-repeated word is simply, "will" (as in "this will happen").
But here, Buffett's words work because he roots them the past.
"I would like to talk to you about the economic future of the country," he continues, "because I remain convinced -- I was convinced of this in World War II. I was convinced of it during the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11, the financial crisis -- that nothing can basically stop America."
In a separate passage -- too long to quote here -- Buffett gives a lengthy sort of "History of the United States According to Warren Buffett."
As a takeaway, if you can talk about past challenges you've overcome as a company or as leader, or that you've seen elsewhere (without seeming Pollyannish), do so -- it allows you to ground your optimism in solid history.
4. They take the long view.
This last section is the payoff, but it only works because of what comes before.
"We haven't really faced anything that quite resembles this problem," Buffett said," but we've faced tougher problems. The American miracle, the American magic has always prevailed, and it will do so again."
On their own, these words could seem like a platitude. But in the context of everything else Buffett does to set them up, they're reassuring.
His assurance takes the long view, because paradoxically, the broader your horizon right now, the more confident and reassuring you can be in your predictions.
That's your goal, too: to reassure your stakeholders, and keep them on board. I think you could do a lot worse than try to use Buffett's remarks as a model.