Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Presenting bad news, part of Business Writing Strategies.
- In a perfect world everything would always go smoothly and everyone would always be happy. (laughs) As we certainly know, that's not the way business works. We do have to give bad news. We will have to deal with both disgruntled employees and customers. And two facts of life: we can't make everyone happy, and some people won't be satisfied regardless of what we do. Everyone doesn't get that coveted promotion, or those vacation days approved, or that loan or that refund or replacement.
That's why we have the indirect strategy to help us give bad news. We certainly can't hope to have happy employees or customers in these situations. The best we can hope for is that the reader is sane. I don't like the answer, but I understand why that decision had to be made. The bad news situations we'll look at are in two categories: refused request and adjustment refusal. One of your employees requested three hours of release time twice a week for eight weeks to attend a class at a local community college.
You decide to refuse the request and have to let your employee know your reason. The reader reaction may be disappointment, frustration, or even anger. The purpose of your response is certainly to give the bad news, but it's also to explain to the employee why the decision was made, in a way that helps him understand why his request is being refused. What technique will you use to accomplish both goals? The indirect strategy. Why the indirect strategy? Well, let's analyze what would happen if we used the direct strategy.
The first sentence would be, "Your request for release time has been denied." Even though you would then explain why you made that decision, the employee may not even read beyond the bad news, or if he does, the damage is done. He's angry, he's frustrated, he's disappointed, and will take all those negative emotions with him as he glances at your reasons. Now let's look at a couple examples of possible indirect openings. Remember, we're looking only at the opening sentences.
We'll examine entire messages in another lesson. "You are to be commended for wanting to take a class "to update your computer skills," or, "I've carefully considered your requested release time "to update your computer skills." Notice that these openings don't give the answer, but they do identify what the message is about: that request for release time, an on-subject, yet neutral opening. The purpose of opening with a buffer is to keep the reader reading, looking for the answer.
As he scans the next part of the message looking for that answer, he's going to see some of the reasons for which you made the decision. The second bad news situation is the adjustment refusal. Like the adjustment grant, the adjustment refusal is in response to a claim letter, that direct letter you receive from the dissatisfied customer, except this time the answer is no. As you look at the claim situation, you decide that the customer does not have a legitimate claim, so you will refuse the claim.
Both the reader reaction, disappointment, frustration, maybe even anger, and the purpose of the document, to get the reader to read the reasons for denying the request before the actual refusal is given, are the same as with the refused request. And you want your reader to accept your decision as a fair one. A direct opening such as this probably wouldn't accomplish that goal: "We are refusing your request for a $116 credit "to your account." So, again, the indirect strategy is the technique that will help us better accomplish all of the purposes.
It will delay giving the bad news, and is likely to keep the reader scanning the rest of the document, looking for the answer, which means she'll see at least some of your fairness reasoning. Here are a couple buffer examples, on-subject and neutral: "The $116 fee we agreed to was to trim the maple tree "in your yard and for all the trimmings to be hauled away," or, "Your $116 contract with us was "for trimming the maple tree in your yard "and hauling away the trimmings." Those buffers identify for the reader what the letter is about, do not give a yes or no answer, and require that the reader continue reading, looking for the answer.
The no answers, both to the employee's requested release time, and the customer's payment adjustment request, will come later in the message. That's the purpose of the indirect strategy, to delay the purpose.
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- Deciding when to begin or delay the message
- Presenting information
- Getting support for ideas
- Understanding the audience
- Communicating internally and externally
- Choosing the appropriate language and tone
- Using business writing outlines and templates