45 Bad-News Formula

For many people, bad news brings images of tragedy, lost loved ones, lost opportunities, lost hopes. But in technical writing, the bad-news approach to correspondence refers to information that your reader may not readily want to hear.

Take, for instance, a letter that you send to a retail store where you were treated poorly. Sure, the management wants to know that they have a problem with an employee, but it is really news they would rather not hear: in a perfect retail world, customers are always treated kindly.

Or you want to write a letter to a company asking them to replace a defective product you bought. A successful company will definitely want to replace the item, but they would rather have never had the occasion to receive the letter in the first place.

What if you’re writing to a business asking them to explain some policy they have developed. The business will be excited about answering queries from prospective clientele. But picture the person who has to reply to you. He or she probably has a million other things on the daily agenda and now has to squeeze one more item onto the schedule. That’s not necessarily good news.

As the writer of correspondence, you have to influence your reader not only to read your letter but to act upon it. Remember, reading is an active process. You want the manager to correct the employee’s attitude, not laugh at you as just another complaining customer. You want the company to replace the defective part immediately, not put your letter aside for someone else to handle. And you want the business to answer your questions quickly and fully.

The bad-news formula can help influence your reader to react by organizing your letter in five distinct sections:

  • a friendly opening
  • an explanation or analysis of the problem
  • the bad news
  • an alternative solution
  • a friendly closing

Let’s look at the five sections in a letter. This letter is in response to a customer who wanted an appliance company to replace his broken dryer. The company cannot replace the dryer but wants to keep the customer satisfied. Look how the bad-news approach organizes the letter:

Thank you for your call about your dryer (the letter begins). As you know, following your call, our service representative, Sophia Montana, examined your dryer.

This paragraph uses a basic friendly approach: “Thank you.” Those two words can go a long way in keeping your reader happy. Openings should be very short, but they should always have a friendly tone to them. Let the reader know you appreciate them reading this letter, no matter how angry you are.

She found that the dryer’s motor had been overheated so much that it is damaged beyond repair. She also noted that the lint filter was so clogged with lint that it was not functioning properly. As a result, the lint packed into the motor, causing the overheating. She also reported that on a previous service call to your house, she had found the lint filter clogged. At that time, she showed you the warning in your operating manual that points out that failure to clean the lint filter after every use of the dryer may result in overheating and damage to the motor.

This paragraph reminds the reader of some important concepts. It’s nothing new for the reader, but it is putting on record information that will help the reader understand the upcoming bad news. Don’t over explain background details, but give enough to help your reader’s understanding of the issues.

Your replacement guarantee only covers defects by the manufacturer and improper installation by us. Since neither was a factor in the motor’s overheating, we cannot replace your motor free of charge as you have requested.

This is definitely bad news. The reader is probably fuming at this point. He wanted a replacement and he’s not going to get it. You can’t hide the bad news. You have to be open and let your reader know exactly what you are writing for. Hopefully, the two previous paragraphs will have helped “buffer” the reader’s anger.

However, we are anxious to help you get your dryer working again. If you want our service representative to install a new motor, please call us. We can bill the installation as a continuing service call at $35 rather than the normal installation fee of $60, saving you $35. The cost of the motor itself is $150, so your total cost would be $185.

Here’s the alternative. Show your reader that you are willing to help out, compromise, as it were. It’s bad news, but it’s not the end of the world. It can be corrected with both you and your reader in agreement.

We value you as a customer, so we hope that our solution for replacing your motor will be acceptable to you.

A friendly closing is just as important as the friendly opening. Both act as bookmarks, reminding the reader that all is not lost. This formula isn’t fool-proof, but it is often successful in keeping anger to a minimum or influencing your audience to take an interest in what you have to say.


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