Give me the bad news first
Some months ago, I was sitting with my team lead, drafting an email to one of our newest clients. Earlier in the week, their application stopped sending emails. Without going into unnecessary detail, suffice to say these emails were pretty important. Luckily, it wasn’t long before someone noticed what the problem was - the SMTP credentials had expired - and fixed the problem. But the damage had been done. People relied on the automated email notifications, and this time they simply didn’t arrive.
We had to explain all this to our client. I discussed the facts with my team lead, and when we settled on what we needed to say, I remember them walking away and saying “that’s good, just fluff it up a bit.” This stuck in my mind because, although I had a vague sense of what they meant by this, I couldn’t really explain it. What exactly does it mean to “fluff up” an email?
Direct vs Indirect Language
All communication can be thought of as a sender transmitting a message over some medium to a receiver. Direct language uses language to send the message as clearly as possible, without any irrelevant or unnecessary information or noise. A simple example of direct language, the weekly reminder I receive to do my timesheets: “Submit your timesheets by close of business today”. Direct language is a good strategy when you have good news or routine information to convey. It reduces the cognitive load on the receiver by simplifying how the message gets processed.
Indirect language can be understood in contrast to direct language. Indirect language deliberately delays the message by adding other information or buffers before and after the message, and using less direct words.
Imagine you put in your leave request for that holiday you’ve been planning. You send it off, and head home. Later on, your phone buzzes. It’s an email from your boss, and it says “Your leave request has been declined.” That’s a bit blunt! What are you going to tell your family? Does your boss realise how important this is to you? You haven’t taken leave for ages, and now you finally request some it’s denied?
Hopefully you agree that this kind of response would leave you sad and annoyed. A less direct approach might be like this:
“With only five people in our department, rotating leave schedules is important so that at least three of us are here to cover all the duties. Alice and Bob have already scheduled leave from July 1-8. Do you have a second choice? Or maybe talk with Alice or Bob about the possibility of switching weeks with you. Just let me know what is decided, so I get everyone’s leave on the calendar.”
This comes across as a lot more polite and thoughtful. Indirect language can be used whenever you anticipate a negative reaction to your message.
The previous example actually comes from a course called Business Communication Strategy (although I changed a couple of details). It follows a template like this:
Buffer Thanks for letting me know about your leave plans.
Transition With only five people in our department, rotating leave schedules is important so that at least three of us are here to cover all the duties.
Explanation Alice and Bob have already scheduled leave from July 1-8.
Bad news Do you have a second choice?
Alternative Or maybe talk with Alice or Bob about the possibility of switching weeks with you (also the above – even the news is supplied with indirect words).
Goodwill Just let me know what is decided, so I get everyone’s eave on the calendar.
Bad news, such as in this example, or attempts at persuasion are times to use indirect language. The idea is that placing your reasoning before delivering the bad news ensures that the recipient can process that information before they have a negative reaction. If this doesn’t help to almost eliminate the negative reaction, it at least allows you to give your side of the story before the recipient becomes upset and may not continue reading in the most extreme cases.
Before you read any further though, I am here to tell you this is the WRONG way of doing it. Why? First, let’s discuss how we might have applied this strategy for my email problem.
How might I have applied this in my case of missing email notifications? If I had simply told my client “Its fixed, the mail server credentials had expired and just needed updating.” The client might think to themselves, “I don’t care that you fixed it, I want to know why it happened in the first place. How am I going to explain this to my customers? Is this going to happen again next month? How could they let this happen, don’t they know these email notifications are critical!?”
If instead, I wrote: “Thanks for your patience with this recent issue. I know it has impacted your customers. Our team noticed the issue early this morning, an investigated the problem immediately. We discovered the missing email notifications was due to the mail server credentials expiring yesterday at midnight, and corrected the application configuration. We are undertaking a review to ensure we have processes in place to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.”
This is a lot less direct. It doesn’t exactly follow the template above, but it is quite close to what I actually wrote (from memory). It puts the explanation of what we did as a team to fix the problem, and how we’re going to improve for next time. It’s not perfect, but do you agree it’s a bit more professional in tone than the first example?
Well, here I will confess that in many ways, I still prefer the direct approach. Even though the news isn’t good, I am an honest person who values clarity and efficiency. Also, when I read an email starting with “thanks for your patience . . . blah blah blah” - It just kind of washes over me and can make me annoyed. Starting with indirect language can be a queue that bad news is to come, and when you read it you may have just as bad a reaction as if the news was given to you directly!
In Search of Evidence
So even though this advice is given in professional business communication courses, let’s at least ask the question: but does it work? And here’s the twist - research shows the traditional advice of using a buffer and ending on a positive don’t really work.
It seems this advice isn’t new. Consider these opening remarks from a paper 1 from way back in 1999 in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication (pages 5-6):
Traditional textbook advice about writing negative messages can be distilled as six principles:
- Use a buffer (a neutral or positive sentence enabling the writer to delay the negative information)
- Explain why you are refusing
- Place the reason before, not after, the refusal
- Phrase the refusal itself as positively as possible
- Offer an alternative or a compromise, if one is available
- End on a positive, forward-looking note. (Locker, “Rhetoric,” 1)
This advice received empirical support in 1969 from an experiment conducted by John Pettit, who found that readers responded more positively to a “good” negative message than to a “bad” one. In 1976, his results were replicated with Spanish-speaking college students by Jack Eure. However, in the experiment Pettit and Eure used, the good letter followed all six principles, while the bad letter violated all of them.
And here’s the bombshell (page 6, emphasis mine):
When I attempted to test two of the principles more precisely in 1978, I found that buffers (principle 1) did not matter and that strong resale (a variety of principle 6) was counterproductive (Locker, “Do Buffers”).
and finally Locker notes the problem here (please note I have snipped parts for brevity, also page 6, and again, my emphasis)
The tradition prohibition against starting with negative information no longer is universal. The more recent the book, the more likely it is the suggest adapting the strategy to the situation; [snip] However [snip] Even these texts generally present such situations as exceptions to the general rule of indirectness.
This analysis appears to apply equally today, such aswhat I received in my business communication course online. Locker recommends in the abstract that “negative letters normally begin with the reason for the refusal. If the reason makes the company look good, then it should be spelled out in as much detail as possible. If an alternative or a compromise exists, then the writer should suggest it. Although a positive ending is not necessary, if one is used, then a bland positive is better than a strong one, especially in letters to clients or customers.
This cuts down the components of our negative messages to simply:
- Bad news
- Alternative if one exists.
This is a lot more direct language than before.
There may be more research and literature out there on this, but this gives me significant reason to doubt the effectiveness of the advice to use indirect language when delivering negative messages.
In conclusion I would recommend that when you are writing some bad news for someone, it will help you to communicate the message if you are sure to include the reasons for the situation first, offer whatever alternatives courses of action exist, and finally to be honestly, but not overenthusiastically, positive about your relationship with the recipient for the future. In my case as a software developer who works with my clients to keep applications working for them, when I need to deliver these types of messages, I will try to make it clear how we got to where we are and what our options are.
K. O. Locker, “Factors in Reader Responses to Negative Letters”, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 13, no. 1 pp.5-48, 1999. ↩