Delivering Bad News

Delivering bad news gracefully and clearly is an important skill for business professionals. How you deliver bad news reflects on you as a communicator and on the business you may represent. As with all business writing, audience awareness is of paramount importance when delivering bad news. The following guidelines will help you to deliver bad news in ways that are clear, in­formative, and respectful of your audiences.

Readers need to know the message is im­portant for them to read. Avoid burying the news late in the message, since that could cause them to skip over it.

Cushion or buffer the bad news, while retaining clarity

Business audiences expect direct­ness and candor, but most audiences do not like a sudden shock. Many business writers employ buffering techniques to soften the blow of bad news, such as beginning with relevant background information to prepare the reader for the news to come. Such buffers should not hide or obscure the negative message, however.

Justify and/or explain

Audiences will want to know the details behind or rationale for bad news. Share relevant facts and reasons that your audience will need to understand and come to terms with the negative message. Being forthright can help maintain good will with readers, whereas keeping them in the dark can cause distrust or confusion. In the case of a refusal, for ex­ample, a clear rationale may help your audience to accept the decision and to feel that they would have made the same decision.

Avoid simply quoting company policy as a rationale for a refusal; rather, give the rationale be­hind the policy. Hiding behind policy gives audiences the impression they are dealing with an uncaring bureaucracy and certainly does not generate good will.

Present positives

When possible, point out the good that can come from a situation; however, be sure to avoid seeming disingenuous. A letter of dismissal that presents as a positive all the extra free time the recipient will now have to spend with family will likely create more antago­nism than good will.

Offer solutions or alternatives

Recipients of bad news will often want to know how a problem might be solved. If the office parking lot will be closed for repairs to a water main, where should employees park? If your company no longer carries a particular product, can you suggest an al­ternative? If an error or crisis has occurred that you have the authority for correcting, letting your audience know what you are doing to correct the problem not only makes bad news less bleak, but also can protect your credibility.

Keep your audience in the loop

While some communications—such as a refusal of a request or declining a job applicant—may only require a single communication, others may need ongo­ing attention. If you have just revealed a reporting error to your boss or board, they will expect to be kept updated about further developments resulting from the error and actions taken to correct the problem.

Consider your multiple audiences

Written communications all have the potential of reaching more than the audience addressed. Something you write to one client may reach others or news sources.

Modified from:

Howe Writing Initiative ‧ Farmer School of Business ‧ Miami University

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