What We Dangerously Omit From Bad News Messages

Who cringes when reading bad news business messages? I often do. But if we keep the reader in mind, we can craft messages that preempt any questions the reader(s) might have and avoid unnecessary bad responses. This blog outlines some core elements we often see missing in real-world messages and how to fix things, too.

Missing (or Buried) Bottom Line Information

Delivering bad vs. good news feels terrible. However, too often the writer writes for their ego vs. the readers’ need (and right) to know what went wrong. To gain the respect of your reader(s), keep all bottom-line information on the layoffs, the missed target, the delayed shipment etc. in the lead vs. buried several paragraphs down.

If you’re sharing your news via email, you might also hint of the bad news within the subject line. Without a clear subject line, your reader may miss that your message contains bad vs. good news and skip over. So, rather than: Subject: Fourth Quarter Projections. Try: Subject: Why/How We Missed Fourth Quarter Projections

Missing Good News Within the Lead

Writers also often forget to include the good news within the launch/lead paragraph and bury this update towards the end. For instance, if the bad news outlines a missed shipment, alert your reader(s) of the revised deadline in your launch (and even subject line). E.G. Subject: Jan. 19 Deadline Missed Now Revised to Jan. 26. Or, if you’re alerting a boss of a published error, reassure the reader you’ve since fixed (and republished) the message. The good news becomes part of your bottom line, so share that reassuring update, too.

Missing Details Your Reader Likely Wants to Know

Offer robust details clarifying all your reader might want to know. If you’re announcing layoffs, for instance, ensure you lay out clearly:

  • Which departments/divisions/facilities and in which regions
  • When the layoffs take place
  • How many employees must go
  • What benefits exist for those losing their jobs
  • Why the layoffs must occur

Which details to share—and the order—depends on whether you’re writing up or down the chain. I find leadership typically prefers all bottom-line info up top with no buffer, then, how the writer (and their team) plans to fix the problem. Details on how the problem originally surfaced can come next—if you think your reader(s) want to know. However you order the body of the message, ensure it aligns with what you think your reader values most/wants to know.

Missing Apology

Sometimes the writer inadvertently (or intentionally) omits from their bad news an apology. I hear three recurring theories on written apologies:

  • Some communicators feel any failure becomes a team failure; therefore, no need for an apology exists, even to leadership.
  • Other communicators feel we succeed as a team and fail as individuals. (I hear this noble sentiment a lot among those serving in the military.)
  • Older and/or more traditional communicators feel we must always apologize for error to show reverence and respect.

For the best possible reader response, I suggest succinctly and sincerely apologizing in your opening paragraph—just once—directly before (or after) your bottom line. Avoid boilerplate sounding language. If you feel terrible about the error—mortified or ashamed, say so. Then, proceed with the rest of the message. You know your audience best. But I’ve always found saying sorry can never hurt and shows humility, too.

Missing Empathy

Related to this point, the best, more memorable negative messages I’ve read often sound honest, empathetic, and heartfelt. To emulate that positive response, sound personable vs. wooden, cool or formal. Also, as best you can, ensure your (and your company’s) actions match your language.

The January 2018 announced closure of 63 Sam’s Clubs illustrates how vague messaging about closures can mesh poorly with actual events. Business Insider reports quick store closures with minimal notice to workers—quite the opposite to what the company promised. To illustrate the discrepancy, I’ve copied Sam’s Club’s tweet on the news below and provided more coverage here.

After a thorough review of our existing portfolio, we’ve decided to close a series of clubs and better align our locations with our strategy. Closing clubs is never easy and we’re committed to working with impacted members and associates through this transition.

More blogs on negative messages live here.

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