Delivering Bad News/Written Apologies

When delivering bad news, include the following:

  • A sincere greeting that does not relate to the bad news. If you open with the bad news, you may lose your reader immediately.
  • Explanation of the circumstances that led to the bad  news. Bad news is harder to accept when it does not make sense. Explain as much as possible/appropriate.
  • Deliver the bad news with an apology if appropriate.
  • Immediately after the bad news, include a statement that fosters goodwill. If possible, offer a compromise.

*NOTE: No amount of strong or fancy writing will make bad news sound good. However, a well-crafted message helps the reader understands and accept the message.

Analyze your audience by asking:

      • How serious is the issue?
      • How much damage has been done?
      • How valuable is the future relationship?

Pay close attention to your tone:

      • Establish a serious, sincere, but not overly dramatic tone.
      • Offer a sincere apology, but don’t overdo it.
      • Use diction (word choice) carefully: often how you phrase your apology matters more than what is actually stated.

*When writing bad news messages, use a tone that is clear but not accusatory. The table below shows a few examples:

TABLE 5
Vague Accusatory Clear and polite
This assignment wasn’t quite what I was looking for. You failed! This assignment did not earn a passing score.
Your instructions were unclear. I have no idea what you want. These instructions don’t make any sense. Looking at the instructions you sent, I wasn’t able to get a good sense of what you were looking for.

Pay attention to your format and structure:

      • Provide an explanation where appropriate, but don’t make excuses or blame others.
      • Offer to make amends or rectify the situation when appropriate.
      • Close by maintaining good will.

Be sure to follow the bad news letter structure when delivering bad news or making apologies:

      • The buffer/cushion (paragraph 1) works to set up the communication and put the reader into a more receptive frame of mind.
      • The explanation (paragraph 2) explains the purpose of the communication and provides a brief (when appropriate and necessary) overview of the situation.
      • The negative news message (paragraph 3) directly addresses how the bad news directly affects the reader/customer/recipient.
      • The redirect (paragraph 4) discusses specific actions that you will take (or that have already been taken) to remedy the problem. In the case below, this redirect also includes a solution strategy enhanced with a soft-sell message (a subtle, low-pressure method of selling, cross-selling, or advertising a product or service). This can also work as a conclusion.

Here’s an example of a well-structured bad news message:

Buffer or Cushion Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product.

Explanation – reasons why

We are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular, with over 10,000 requests on the day you placed your order.
Negative News –  focuses on what they can do This unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder situation. We will fulfill your order, received at 11:59 p.m. on 09/09/2009, in the order it was received.
Redirect –
this example also includes a soft-sell message
We anticipate that your product will ship next Monday. While you wait, we encourage you to consider using the enclosed $5 off coupon toward the purchase of any product in our catalog. We appreciate your business and want you to know that our highest priority is your satisfaction.

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Technical Writing for Technicians by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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