Five Avoidable Blunders When Delivering Bad News

Most of us have had to deliver unwelcome news at some point of our careers;  whether you’re announcing layoffs, a botched project, lost clients, or missed numbers, following these five helpful tips should ensure your audience receives the message well.

Keep the bottom line up top

Your bottom line remains the most vital information within your negative message. Given that most executives and many mid-managers receive upwards of 300 emails a day, we can only assume that many will only read the opening lines. To ensure your reader gains the pivotal information, at a very high level, the bottom line should contain the following:

  • What went wrong
  • How/why it went wrong
  • How you/your team plan to fix it

To help harried readers, I suggest adding the good news (and the bad news) within the bottom line, too. For example, if your negative message tells leadership (or a high-stakes customer) you missed a launch date, include the revised launch date within the bottom line.

You may also want to hint of the negative news within the subject line, or at least ensure the subject line doesn’t read like an informative message. So, Delayed Launch of Project X vs. Update on Project X.

Avoid jargon and other evasive, confusing (and annoying) language

To ensure your reader follows the reason(s) for the bad news, and how exactly you plan to fix it, clarity and brevity remain key. Typically, I see corporations not only burying the bottom line when they deliver bad news such as wide layoffs. I also see a tendency to use camouflaged verbs such as: transformation, reorganization, modernization and termination. (The real verbs become transform, reorganize, modernize and terminate. Admittedly, these verbs remain indirect language, but at least it’s clearer than the alternative.)

Let’s dissect Walmart’s recent news to lay off staff at its corporate office:

“This is all about aligning and creating efficiencies as we change how we work to seamlessly serve our customer through our stores and e-commerce,” read an official Walmart statement spokesperson Ryan Curell sent this news outlet.

My suggested edit reads:

  • Remove the false subject (this is). You’ll sound more executive if you just jump straight in. If you must use “this is,” add a concrete noun for clarity. This move is…
  • What does aligning and creating efficiencies mean? Replace the jargon with a direct mention of the people who just lost their jobs.
  • What does change how we work to seamlessly serve our customer through our stores and e-commerce mean? Are you hiring robots? Do you mean you’re investing more in online shopping? Please explain using plain language.

Decide whether to use a buffer

When I teach my MBA classes in business communication at Kenan- Flagler Business School, many report their leadership has no tolerance for buffers. They just want to hear the news. All the same, buffers tend to work well when you’re writing down the chain (to a vendor, for instance, or you must let a teammate go).

Dr. Heidi Schultz, in her research, notes buffers also help when you value harmony and maintaining a positive image. You also might find buffers help when you expect push back to the message. Writers tend to avoid buffers when they value brevity. Many communicators avoid buffers when the message feels time sensitive and when you can’t risk the audience misinterpreting the news. (I’ve heard from military clients and students that buffers certainly don’t work in their culture.)

If you decide a buffer feels right, I recommend:

  • Remaining creative (depending on your relationship with the reader)
  • Avoiding generic language. If a Microsoft template exists, don’t use it.
  • Writing the buffer as though you were the recipient of this message; what buffer would you hope to read in this instance?

This example helps illustrate. One of the best rejection notes I ever received came from the Duke University School of Economics where I became one of two finalists for a full-time communication specialist role. The director used an endearing, memorable buffer to tell me the other chap got the job.

He shared: I was one of 859 applicants from all over the globe,  only 1:4 to receive the phone screen and 1:2 to interview with the team on campus. Surprisingly, this news felt so good; and that’s the purpose of effective business communication — building relationships.

Provide robust details within the body of the message

Within the body of your message, your reader will likely want to know the reasons for how the problem happened in the first place and what steps now exist to ensure no future blunders. No matter what, avoid using fluff and vague, repetitive generalities as your buffer of the news itself and how you plan to fix it. Your reader will give up.

My MBAs and clients tell me more frequently, leadership seeks the bad news followed directly by fixes, then, they want to hear how the blunder happened. Remain audience centered as you order the body of your message. Pre-empt what questions your audience might have as you determine your order of paragraphs.

End on a positive, upbeat note

The beginning and end remain the most memorable part of the message. Therefore, you really want to sound your most executive in these two places. I recommend a warm greeting up top vs. a terse one. E.G. Dear Team, vs. Staff, or, All.

As you conclude, you may want to include something endearing and heartfelt to show, not tell your reader you genuinely feel sorry and you genuinely plan to not repeat this mistake again. The younger business audiences I coach tend to not want to apologize. That’s fine. But whatever tactic you take, remain humble, hopeful and optimistic.

Let’s look to one final example for wisdom. Due to camouflaged verbs and jargon, John Skipper sounds a little trite, generic, flip and vague in this ending to his staff during layoffs at ESPN:

Our objective in all we do is to best serve fans and their changing consumption habits while still maintaining an unparalleled and diverse talent roster that resonates with fans across all our platforms.  We will continue to foster creativity and investment in the products and resources necessary to embrace the opportunities that lie ahead.

Thank you as always for your continuing dedication to our work.

I know you can all write something more heart felt, more specific, and sincere sounding than that. Next week: Five communication tips I’ve learned from working with the military.


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