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General Business 360 Communication Guide

Negative News Pattern

An indirect approach can soften bad news.  Use the “negative news pattern” unless you are certain that your reader prefers a direct approach—you may recognize this pattern if you’ve ever received a standard rejection from a college or university admissions office. 


Organizing Bad News Messages

  1. Neutral Subject Line. Announce the topic of the message without giving away the bad news.  Many readers won't even open a message if the negative news is announced in the subject, which means you've lost an opportunity to explain your reasoning and repair relationships.

  1. Buffer Statement. Begin the message with a positive or neutral statement. Be attentive to tone here; don’t create a jarringly upbeat opening to a negative message. The tone of your buffer statement and goodwill closing should be appropriate to the tone of the rest of the message.

  1. Explanation. Prepare readers for the bad news and make it understandable and inevitable. It’s key for the explanation to come before the rejection, to force readers to read the explanation.

  1. Bad News. Deliver the main point of the message without negative language (such as “unfortunately”) but clearly, so that there is no chance your reader will miss the news and require additional messages to clarify your position.

  1. Optional: Alternative.  If it’s appropriate to your audience and purpose, suggest an alternative to what you’re rejecting or saying no to.

  1. Goodwill Closing.  End pleasantly, to rebuild or reinforce the relationship, in spite of your negative message.

Note that this pattern is key when writing to someone in a position above you or to clients or customers; supervisors may not always take the time to use this pattern to say no to subordinates.


Content Credit

Content on this page was created by the Business Communication team at the Wisconsin School of Business.