Delivering Bad News in Business Writing

What's the best way to break bad news? As the old torch song goes, "Break it to me gently."  If your reader is likely to be upset or angry about your message, do not state your message in the first paragraph. Instead, give the basis and reasons for your bad news first. Give the reader the opportunity to figure out the message himself before you hit him in the face with it. By delivering the blow at the end of your document, you will raise the likelihood that your reader will actually read the reasoning behind your message.

For example, if you have applied for a job and you receive a letter that starts, "As you can imagine, we received applications from many highly qualified prospects," you have already said to yourself, "I didn't get the job." When you finally get to the sentence stating, "Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you the position," you will not be shocked.

If your firm is raising its rates and you write to clients with a message that starts, "During the past year, ABC Services has vastly expanded the number of services we offer our valued clients.

We have hired new staff, upgraded our computer systems, and remodeled our waiting area to provide maximum service to our clients." When you announce the rate hike at the end of the letter, at least your readers will have some idea of what they are paying for.

Standard writing wisdom dictates that you always lead with your main point. Delivering bad news is the exception to this rule. Lead with the reasons and deliver the bad news at the end.

A few years ago, an excellent article on delivering bad news appeared in The Orange County Register. Written by Stephen Wilbers, the piece highlights some basic points of courtesy and respect when delivering bad news.  Here is the piece:


Saying no without making your reader angry requires skill and diplomacy.  Sometimes, no matter how carefully you word your message, you create ill will.  You can reduce your chances of offending your reader by keeping in mind the following when writing bad-news letters.

Open with a goodwill statement.

Thank you is perhaps the safest and most effective way to open your letter.  Compare, for example, "Thank you for your letter requesting an exemption to City Code 14B" with "Your letter requesting an exception to City Code 14B is acknowledged."

Depending on the situation, consider elaborating with a statement such as "I appreciate your taking time to express your concern" or "I understand why you might think this rule does not apply to you."

Acknowledge your reader's request.

Affirm your reader's right to make the request.

If the request is reasonable, recognize the points on which you agree. Try to see the situation from your reader's point of view. Consider your own experience. To be told no by someone who doesn't seem to understand what you are asking or doesn't seem to care is infuriating. To be taken seriously isn't as good as being told yes, but it helps soften the bad news.
Say no clearly and firmly.

Don't say no too early-- in your first opening -- or too late -- in your closing. The time to deliver your bad news is after you have acknowledged your reader and explained the background or circumstances of your decision.

When you do say no, do so unambiguously.

Rather than "The city is reluctant to grant exceptions to this rule," write "For these reasons, we must deny your request." Make it clear that no means no.

Inform your reader of alternatives.

If the request is appropriate and legitimate, explain how your reader's goal might be achieved by some other means.

Provide information about your reader's right to appeal your decision. Explain the process for doing so. Include a brochure, provide relevant names, addresses and phone numbers or direct your reader to a Web page for additional information.

Be accommodating.

Saying no doesn't require you to adopt an adversarial tone.  Offer to assist your reader in some way. Almost any gesture, no matter how inconsequential, can demonstrate good will. Expedite the appeal process by sending the appropriate forms.

Make a phone call on your reader's behalf.

If appropriate, invite your reader to meet with you or to call you with questions.

Close with a goodwill statement. Most people feel uncomfortable telling someone no, but avoid the temptation to make a quick escape from an awkward situation. Close by thanking the reader again for writing. Try to identify common ground. Emphasize the positive.

Don't be abrupt.

Saying no in your first sentence  --  "Your request for an exception to Code 14B is denied"  --  creates the  impression that you haven't understood the request, that you care more about your policies than your reader's well being or that you enjoy telling people no as an assertion of power.

Don't question your reader's integrity.

Questioning your reader's motives, even indirectly or by implication, shows disrespect.  Adopt a professional, objective tone.  Even if your reader is a jerk, don't impugn his or her motives.

Don't write in a bureaucratic style.

Most people would rather be told no by a person with identifiable human qualities than by a mindless bureaucratic who can't be bothered with common sense or decency.

Avoid officious language, such as "The board has deemed your complaint unwarranted" or "As per Regulation 10,499, your request falls outside the purview of normal and acceptable exceptions."

Like all social interaction, effective bad-news letters are based on the principles of courtesy and respect.


© 2000 Orange County Register

Introductory material © 2011 Elizabeth Danziger



More Business News Articles