If your audience expects bad news or prefers a “bottom line” approach, present the bad news along with a brief rationale upfront. For example, to relay that a report will be late, try, “The extra time required to convert our accounting system means that our departmental compliance report will be submitted on April 1 instead of March 15.” This is preferred to presenting the “bad news” after a lot of explanation.
This “direct” approach saves time and immediately satisfies your audience’s curiosity about your purpose. The brief rationale helps readers accept your decision. These messages are often shorter than indirect messages because they deal with simpler situations which require little explanation.
When conveying bad news, if your audience is likely to be surprised and seriously disappointed, present the reasons before the “news.” For example, instead of saying, “The annual company Labor Day picnic originally scheduled for Sept. 2 at Lincoln Park has been canceled,” write “Because repair work at Lincoln Park might present safety concerns to our employees and their families, the Labor Day picnic originally scheduled for Sept. 2 has been canceled.”
When your audience is likely to have an emotional response to “bad news,” discussing the reasons first helps to “build the case” and demonstrate that the decision was logical and reasonable. When the audience understands the reasonableness of the decision, it is less likely to be disappointed in the outcome.
When conveying negative news, depersonalize the message. For example, instead of saying, “You failed to notice…”, consider “May I point out that…” or “Another consideration is…”. One way of depersonalizing is to use passive voice. For instance, instead of using active voice by saying “Your action caused us to lose a $10,000 sale, say, “By delaying the order, a $10,000 sale was lost.”
Depersonalizing the message creates a more objective, tactful tone. Additionally, using passive voice focuses on the behavior (delaying the order), rather than on the person.
When conveying bad news, avoid such words as “mistake”, “problem”, “unfortunately”, “impossible”, and discuss what can be done rather than what cannot be done. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry that we cannot honor your special request for delivery on Thursday”, say, “As initially promised, you will receive your order first thing Friday morning.”
The assumption is that you reached your decision by analyzing all the relevant information and that the decision is a reasonable one. If you can realistically assume that if the reader were faced with the same options and had the same information available, he or she would act in a similar way, there is no reason to apologize for any reasonable business decision.