Style: The Craft of Skilled Writing
In many textbooks about professional writing, you’ll find a chapter about delivering “bad news,” which includes guidance to stay positive in your writing where possible. I agree, which is why this chapter is called “Positive Writing,” which is the goal, rather than “bad news,” which is the problem.
The intellectual shift to positive writing sounds simple, but it’s actually quite a challenge.
For our whole lives, we have received messages in negative framing, whether that be from parents (No! Don’t touch that!), educators (Stop talking or you’ll be in detention!), religious leaders and texts (“Thou shalt not…”), businesses (No shirt, no shoes, no service!), or myriad others. Most rules and laws are in the negative frame, telling us what we cannot do and challenges we face are often defined in negative terms, such as “problems,” “conflicts,” or “mistakes.”
Sometimes, we need to communicate in the negative frame for urgency, clarity, legal reasons, or other needs, but most professional messages can be communicated in the positive frame.
There are many ways to frame a message. For example, if I want my spouse to buy me ice cream, I could communicate that in any of the following ways:
- Please buy me ice cream. (imperative voice)
- We need more ice cream. (declarative voice, inclusive pronoun)
- Could you pick up more ice cream at the store? (interrogative voice)
- Ice cream! (exclamatory voice, subject and verb implied)
- Darling, sweetest, could you grab us more ice cream so I can make your favourite dessert tonight? (interrogative voice, inclusive pronoun, affectionate and transactional framing added)
The topic of ice cream requires little skill to stay positive (unless you’re saying “Stop stealing my ice cream!”), but take note of how the same message can be packaged in different ways. (Also, a little marital advice, go with the last one on the bullet list for best results.)
So, what do we mean by “positive frame” and “negative frame”? Look at these examples:
|Please close the door.||Don’t leave the door open.|
|Let’s talk about this in a future department meeting.||I don’t want to talk about this now.|
|We’ll need to develop a new path forward.||What we’re doing now isn’t working.|
|Our past work offers us opportunities to improve.||You’ve made mistakes that need to be fixed.|
|We’ll need to repair this to get it working again.||This is broken, so we can’t use it right now.|
The examples on the left are all in the positive frame and the examples on the right are their counterparts in the negative frame. Each set communicates the same message, but the framing is different.
The switch from negative framing to positive framing is a major challenge and one that is easier acknowledged than achieved.
To think about how to make the switch, I often encourage students to explore the memos of “Tiger” Mike Davis, a man who once owned an oil drilling business in Texas. Some of his memos seem okay, but most of them are abhorrently negative. Take a look at the memos titled “Idle Conversation” and “Celebrations of Any Kind” and also the one dated January 3, 1978, about typewritten documents. (You may also wish to read some of the others for a shocking laugh. Be warned, the language can be objectionable!)
Tiger Mike wrote these memos and sent them to his employees. They range from not that good to wildly unacceptable. Somebody saved these memos for decades and provided them to Letters of Note and I’m very glad they did because we can learn a lot from them.
With the January 3rd memo about typewritten correspondence, Tiger Mike is rude, authoritarian, and ominously threatening. However, he does have a point; professional correspondence should be typewritten. Can you imagine receiving official correspondence from your bank or your post-secondary institution that was handwritten? That would seem unprofessional and strangely casual.
With the “Celebrations of Any Kind” memo, the text is, once again, rude and authoritarian. It’s also passive-aggressive and mean-spirited. However, Tiger Mike has a fair point. If everybody at work stops for half an hour to have a little birthday party every time somebody has a birthday, that’s going to eat up a lot of staff time and staff time means staff wages, which are a major expense. In contemporary workplaces, employers often give employees gift cards for their birthdays. That seems like a lovely gesture, but what it really does is what Tiger Mike was seeking to achieve: having folks celebrate outside the workplace and after work hours.
Finally, with the “Idle Conversation” memo, Tiger Mike is, as always, rude and authoritarian, but in this one, he’s also outright threatening and abusive. Communicating this way to one’s employees is a terrible choice and one that is likely to result in a large number of resignations and even lawsuits. However, once again, Tiger Mike has a point; gossip in the workplace can be toxic and it really isn’t acceptable.
The major problem is this: Tiger Mike lives in the negative frame and all of his communication is anchored there.
These messages can be turned around, just as the messages in the negative frame above were easily shifted into the positive frame.
Let’s look at how we could describe Tiger Mike’s memo and what we could do in the positive frame to make the language more appropriate for the workplace.
Most of Tiger Mike’s memos can be moved from the negative frame to the positive frame with no loss of meaning, only a shift in framing.
If you want to challenge yourself, try the three above, along with some of the others, such as the memos titled “Office Furniture” and “Use of Front Conference Room.” Be careful with this exercise; your first attempt may well still be in the negative frame.
Contemporary professional communication should be in the positive frame as much as possible. Always look for opportunities to switch your writing from negative framing to positive framing, except where negative framing is truly necessary, such as when delivering bad news.
Delivering bad news
Delivering bad news is an important skill. Especially if you rise into management, that will be a critical and delicate part of your job. Skilled communicators can protect and maintain a relationship while delivering bad news. The unskilled delivery of bad news can be disastrous, as can be seen in this case study about Better.com, a company best known for its CEO, who decided to fire 900 employees in a single three-minute Zoom call (Ignacz, 2022, p. 1). The result involved more people quitting, law suits, and other catastrophic consequences (Ignacz, 2022).
Reflecting on the text earlier on this chapter, you’ll know that staying positive where possible is best. However, when delivering bad news, sometimes you need negative framing (but only a little bit).
When delivering bad news, you only need to use negative framing once in all likelihood: the moment when you deliver the bad news.
The rest of the message can be in positive framing and with good reason. Every message has a certain relationship attached to it. The relationship could be exceptionally weak, as with broadcast advertising for a product you never use. The relationship could be exceptionally strong, as with family. When delivering bad news, you want to protect the relationship as much as possible.
There are a few ways to do this. First, stay positive where you can. Second, look for opportunities to speak to shared values or goals. Third, consider if you can make an alternative offer that could be seen as “softening the blow” of the bad news. As an example, if you need to send a letter notifying a job applicant that they haven’t been hired, you could let them know that their application will be kept on file for future consideration and encourage them to look at future job postings. Yes, you had to deliver bad news, but you can still work on strengthening the relationship, even in that moment—perhaps especially in that moment.
In terms of the structure of a bad news message, there are two general approaches: direct (rip that bandage off quickly) and indirect (gently pull the bandage off a little at a time). The direct approach hurts more, but for a shorter time. The indirect approach hurts longer, but maybe not as much.
Here’s my professional advice on delivering bad news, paragraph by paragraph:
- Start the document with an introduction, as you would with any other professional document. Indicate the purpose of the letter (but don’t tell the reader the bad news yet), the reason the letter is being written, and the reason the letter is being sent to the reader. Provide the context in this first paragraph. That might be only one or two sentences, but start there for clarity and to ease the reader into the letter gently.
- Rip off the bandage. In one or two sentences, clearly communicate the bad news. This is the only place in the letter where you’ll communicate the bad news, as you don’t want to dwell on the issue or repeat yourself, especially on this point. Immediately pivot into a message that communicates something positive, such as appreciation, praise, or goodwill.
- Build/protect the relationship. Focus on something positive that could still happen in the future. Be sincere in doing this. For example, if rejecting a job applicant whom you don’t want to hire under any circumstances, don’t tell them to keep applying. That’s unfair, dishonest, and unethical. However, look for a chance to give the reader a positive reflection, even in the face of bad news.
- Express thanks and wrap up the letter.
Here’s an example of a letter that follows this structure (with annotations in red).
This is only one way of delivering bad news. Every situation is unique and you need to judge each situation individually (as should be true of most writing tasks).
Staying positive is a challenge, but a skilled writer can build a relationship and protect it, even when delivering bad news.
Ignacz, K. (2022). Better.com should live up to its name: A case study of failed public relations practices. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/communicating/wp-content/uploads/sites/1726/2022/07/Better-com-Case-Study.pdf