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5 tips for giving bad news well

By Rachel Eidan

October 4, 2017

Email Writing, Meeting Skills, Presentation Skills, Writing Skills

5 tips for giving bad news well - businesswoman-in-distress-thinking
5 tips for giving bad news well - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1
5 tips for giving bad news well - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1

Whether you need to refuse a customer’s insurance claim or decline an employee’s request for vacation, delivering bad news is one of our toughest writing challenges. How do you deliver a clear message, without damaging your business relationship?

If you’re faced with delivering a bad news message, an indirect approach can help to ease your reader into the bad news.

Follow these 5 simple steps to write a difficult message using the indirect approach:

1. State the topic and urgency in the subject line. However, don’t state the bad news directly. Here are some sample subject lines for bad news messages:

  • Insurance policy renewal decision
  • Public seminar schedule update
  • Your request for funding

2. Open your message with a buffer to ease the reader into the bad news. The buffer is a brief, true statement, usually neutral or positive, that both you and your reader agree on. For example:

  • We have completed our review of the medical information we received from your physician.
  • Thank you for your interest in our public seminar, Creating your Family Tree.
  • Every year in January, our donations committee meets to discuss appeals for funding such as yours.

3. State the bad news in a clear, specific statement that begins with the reason. Embed the bad news in the middle of the sentence, as shown in these examples:

  • Based on your medical report, we are unable to renew your policy within preferred rates. The rate we have offered you is competitive and is guaranteed for the next 12 months.
  • Because of insufficient registration, we are canceling the November 16 public seminar. Would you like to attend our next seminar on January 30?
  • Because we have already allocated our funds, we are unable to give you any free laptops this year.

4. Keep the body of the message short and positive. Consider your reader when crafting the body—what do they need or want to know? As writers, we often avoid telling our readers the bad news until we’ve explained all the reasons we would never intentionally upset them. As readers, we want to know the bottom line—the bad news—up front, and then hear a brief explanation.

5. Close on a positive note, if possible. Keep your closing statement appropriate to the situation, and be genuine. If you know of another step they might take to fix a problem, tell them what they can do. Remember to thank your reader, state their value to you, or tell them what will happen next. For example:

  • Thank you for reaching out to us. To ensure we consider you next year, please send us your request for funding by January 15. Good luck with your fundraising this year.

Other tips for bad news messages:

  • Write the message using a positive tone.
  • Avoid using negative trigger words such as but, never, or problem.
  • Use plain language and a conversational tone. Avoid technical terminology, acronyms and jargon.

When written well, a bad news message can turn a difficult situation into a positive customer experience. What are your strategies for giving bad news effectively?

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