Writing Negative Messages
A negative message is any message to which the reader will have an unpleasant emotional reaction.
Readers find negative messages disappointing or threatening in some way. Such messages require
special care to avoid damaging the quality of the relationship because the negative message—the bad
news—will hurt the reader’s feelings or cause him or her to lose face.
Not all messages saying no are negative. For a message to be negative, the reader’s ego must be
involved in the outcome. If a reader requests information you and others in your organization are not
equipped to provide, for example, the reader’s feelings will not be hurt when you direct him or her
elsewhere. Treat messages of this variety as you would a message conveying positive information: state
the most important information first, and use it to help establish rapport with the reader.
Also, be aware that saying no is more serious in some cultures than it is in others. The Japanese, for
example, will avoid saying no directly, and if they are unable to avoid a negative reply, they will often
apologize for the negative message. Communicating negative information effectively requires greater
cultural sensitivity than does communicating something positive. Before writing, do your best to ensure
that you understand the cultural implications of the message and the expectations of your audience.
General Structure for Conveying Negative Information
When your reader’s ego is involved, opening with the negative message would violate the reader’s
expectation and damage rapport. If you have interviewed the reader for a job and have selected another
candidate, for example, the reader’s ego is involved in your response even if he or she has already
decided on another job with another organization. In such cases, the opening should pace the reader’s
expectation by mentioning something about the subject with which the reader will agree.
Such letters require extra care—the more the negative information concerns the reader as a person, the
greater the need for psychological preparation. Telling your reader that you can’t fill an order because
you are out of stock will not hurt his or her feelings as much as would your refusing to extend credit.
The best preparation for bad news is a logical and believable reason that the negative message is in the
reader’s long-term best interest. If the situation does not allow that approach, at least show that your
reason is legitimate, and help your reader save face by suggesting alternative courses of action or ways
to compensate for a shortcoming. The fact that a positive alternative exists, however, is not a reason for
refusal. The advantages of buying with cash (such as a discount) are not a reason to refuse credit.
Use the following structure for conveying bad news:
Openings for negative messages are often called buffer beginnings because they are designed to buffer
the negative message that will follow. Buffers are designed to establish rapport by being positive—
something with which the reader will agree or perhaps an honest compliment. To be effective, however,
they must also introduce the subject of the message without misleading the reader into thinking that the
message is positive and without foreshadowing the negative. Also, recent research suggests that not
everyone appreciates a buffer beginning. For these reasons, buffers are usually brief.
Thank you for allowing us to examine your ABC. [In a letter refusing warranty coverage.]
Starting 1 May, you will have access to more than 500 channels on Infobahn Cable Service. [In
a letter announcing an increase in rates.]
You will receive the letterhead stock you ordered within the next few days. We shipped it by
UPS, as you requested. [In a letter stating that the reader needs to clarify the type of envelope
As is typically the case in informational messages, the explanation and reasons provide the transitional
element from the opening to the kinds of win-win solutions possible. Note that neither company policy
nor the size of the organization (either large or small) is a real reason—if you have a policy, you should
have a reason for it. Also note that one absolute reason is sufficient. Use more than one reason only
when the individual reasons are weak—and be sure you have a good reason before saying no
automatically. Be especially careful to avoid negative transitions. Such words as but, however,
although, and even though signal a turn for the worse.
When we examined your ABC, we discovered that the video card had been installed incorrectly,
which caused a number of circuits to short out. [Provides transition from the opening to the
reason for the refusal. Note that passive voice helps subordinate what is probably the reader’s
So that we may continue to bring you the kind of cable service you desire, please review the
enclosed list of optional packages and new pricing structure and let us know your preference.
[Provides transition from the opening to the rate increase. Note that the emphasis is on the
reader benefit the increase will bring.]
To receive the envelopes that will best meet your needs. . . . [Provides transition and emphasizes
the reader benefit.]
When possible, be specific about the ways in which you can help the reader meet his or her needs, even
though you are unwilling or unable to do things in the way he or she requested or desires. Your refusing
to extend credit now, for example, may keep your reader out of future credit difficulties. Saying no to a
special request may be necessary to help you keep prices low. Subordinate the negative information
itself by emphasizing a positive alternative, using positive language, and avoiding blaming the reader
for having caused problems. When possible, put the most negative element in a subordinate clause.
Although the improper installation of the video card nullifies the warranty on your ABC, we can
repair the ABC and reinstall the video card for $479.
Even though our banquet facilities are already booked for the evening of 15th, we would be able
to accommodate your group for lunch that day or for lunch or dinner on the 16th.
As soon as you decide which envelopes best meet your needs, fax your order to me for fast
When the reader needs to do something specific—return a form, confirm an alternative, or make a
decision—make sure that he or she knows exactly what he or she needs to do and any appropriate
deadline. When the reader has no options with your organization, do your best to promote goodwill so
that, if future opportunities present themselves, the reader will have a favorable opinion of you and your
Sales material, including resale (on a product or service already purchased) or new sales (on new
product or services), can help make a closing effective when it fits in well with the positive alternative
suggested in blending outcomes. Even when sales material is appropriate, however, be careful to avoid
sounding greedy and selfish. When further action is required, be specific about who should do what
The ABC is an excellent value, and once your machine is repaired, it can provide you with
years of excellent service.
The enclosed menus show you the banquet options available for luncheons and dinners.
Whatever you choose, you can be sure that we will provide your organization with the finest
food and service available.
In addition to custom letterhead stock and envelopes, we offer a complete line of specialty
brochure stock and mailers. Because you are a new customer, I have included a complete
catalog and sampler case with the letterhead you ordered.
A negative reply to a request for goods, service, an adjustment, or credit is bound to upset the reader.
Because in most cases your reader will expect to have the request approved, your negative reply will
come as a disappointing surprise. When you decide that a negative reply is the only one possible under
the circumstances, you need to make the best of the situation by working to maintain a positive
relationship with the reader and making certain that he or she understands the reasons for the decision
and knows what other courses of action are possible.
Delayed or Declined Orders
One type of negative acknowledgment is a message stating that an order cannot be filled or that there will be a
delay in filling it. The fault may be either the reader’s or the writer’s (or the fault of the writer’s company). When
the reader has been at fault by not supplying complete order information, the writer’s principal task is to obtain the
information required to complete the order without accusing the reader of having written an inadequate order.
Not this: You forgot to specify which brand of multivitamins you desired.
Say this: So that you can receive the brand of multivitamins you prefer, please use the enclosed card [or
“reply to this email message”] to indicate your choice.
When the writer or writer’s company is responsible for the delay or refusal, the writer’s principal task is to
persuade the reader either to wait until the order can be filled or to retain faith in the writer’s company or its
products in spite of having to order elsewhere.
Not this: Due to manufacturing difficulties, we will be unable to send the two dozen 5-inch attaché
cases for about three weeks.
Say this: We will be able to send the 5-inch attaché cases in about three weeks, when we expect the new
alarm system to be perfected.
Messages about delays in shipment for which the reader is at fault (because of incorrect or incomplete information,
missing check, or similar reason) require
Careful, positive wording of a request for the missing information.
Inclusion of resale material to encourage the reader to continue with the purchase process.
A request for specific, prompt action on the part of the reader.
P.O. Box 4530, Laguna Hills, California 92653
Consumer Products Division · 1-800-555-6789
July 17, 20xx
Ms. Jane Salmon
492 Oceanside Drive
Santa Monica, CA 90402
Dear Ms. Salmon:
Send part of the order or
otherwise pace the
Keep resale brief at this
point because the reader
will want to know about
the rest of the order.
You will receive the Moonbeam Model 14 can opener you ordered in just a few days. We
shipped it by UPS on July 16.
The Model 14 is the best can opener Moonbeam makes, and it is well-known for its rugged
dependability. All of Moonbeam's blenders have the same kind of rugged construction, and
one of them is sure to be right for your needs.
To meet the wide variety of kitchen demands, Moonbeam makes six different models of
blender, each of which comes in four vibrant colors.
Resale on the delayed
order should focus on the
reader's options rather
than on the mistake.
To retain the reader's
interest, resell the product
by stressing its features
and the benefits the
reader will receive.
The enclosed brochure fully describes the models, their uses, and some of their unique
features. So you may receive the blender that best meets your needs, please review the
brochure and complete the order card on the last page or give us a call at 1-800-555-1212.
We will retain your credit card information until we have heard from you.
The Model 14 can opener and all of Moonbeam's blenders come with an absolute five-year
warranty for your added assurance of quality. We design Moonbeam electric kitchen aids to
make all your kitchen duties a pleasure. The Model 14 electric can opener will handle any
size can regardless of shape. It's also completely submersible for easy cleaning--you can even
stick it in your dishwasher without worry.
Whichever Moonbeam blender you select, you will receive a highly versatile product which
will cut in half the time required to create perfect omelets, make pancakes or waffles, cut
vegetables for a salad, or crush ice.
Close by clarifying who
will do what next and by
As soon as we receive the card or your phone call indicating your choice of blender, we'll
send it to you by UPS. By returning the card or calling now, you can be enjoying the speed
and convenience of automatically mixed, chopped, and pureed foods in about five days.
Frank Olsen, Senior Service Representative
The above Sample illustrates these principles. Also, note that although the message is a long one in view
of the relatively small profit on the product, computerized databases and mailmerge programs make it
easy to use the same basic letter for a wide variety of products over an extended time. The cost of
individual letters would be low compared to the goodwill and increased sales that would result. Other
important considerations are the following:
When possible, send part of the order.
Avoid thanking the reader for an incomplete or declined order because it misleads the reader
into thinking that you have filled it.
Be careful to avoid accusatory language, such as you failed or you neglected. Consider using
passive voice to avoid a direct accusation.
Not this: You failed to specify the fabric options on p. 2 of the order form.
Say this: The fabric options on p. 2 of the order form need to be completed so that we
can meet all your uniform needs.
Include appropriate resale and new sales material, and make sure that the reader knows what he
or she needs to do next. What is appropriate will, of course, depend on the circumstances, but be
sensitive to the fact that your customer or client would appreciate receiving the current order
before purchasing something new.
Letters announcing a delay caused by problems at the writer’s company have the objective of keeping
the order in spite of the negative content (announcing the delay). The writer needs to explain the reasons
for the delay, let the reader know how long the delay will be, and persuade the reader to wait. When the
delay is going to be a long one (and what is considered “long” will vary depending on the nature of the
product or service involved) the writer should acknowledge the reader’s right to make the decision
about whether to wait or order elsewhere, as is shown in the Sample below If the delay will be short
(inconsequential given the product or service), the writer may assume—with confidence—that
completing the order later will meet with the reader’s approval.
Delayed Order with a Long Delay
1900 East Lake Avenue
New York, NY 14604
March 4, 20xx
Mr. Thomas Wendell
553 Aberdeen Road
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Dear Mr. Wendell:
When you cannot send
part of the order, say
something with which
the reader will agree.
Your order for a Guardsman 10-horsepower, 40-inch, electric-start Lawn Tractor
shows your concern for quality. The Guardsman exceeds the American National
Safety Institute's standards and offers the ruggedness and durability of solid steel
Your reader will want
to know why you
haven't said that the
order has been
We usually try to fill orders for Guardsman Lawn Tractors in about two weeks, and
we can understand your desire to have your Guardsman when the grass begins its
spring spurt in April. Because of the steel worker's strike and an unprecedented
demand for Lawn Tractors this season, it will take us six to eight weeks to fill your
order. For this reason, we want to make sure that you understand your options and
believe that you'll find that the Guardsman is worth the wait.
To retain the reader's
interest in spite of the
delay, resell the
product by stressing its
features and the
benefits the reader will
The electric-start, 35-cubic inch, 10-horsepower engine has plenty of power to tackle
the toughest of home-mowing needs. The engine governor automatically increases
the gas feed to maintain blade speed in tall grass and weeds--even on steep hills.
In addition to the many features designed to make the Guardsman 10 the most
versatile home lawn tractor on the market, any family member old enough to drive it
can use it with complete confidence. The Guardsman comes with a safety interlock
which permits the engine to start only with the mower in neutral and the blades
disengaged. Another safety feature you'll appreciate is the automatic cutoff that
disengages the blades and kills the engine should the driver leave the tractor seat
while the tractor is in gear. Guardsman is the only lawn tractor available with this
Because the delay is a
long one, make clear
that you know that the
reader has a choice,
but encourage the
reader to make the
choice that will blend
your desired outcomes.
Clarify who is to do
what next. The last
motivate the reader by
emphasizing a reader
Please use the enclosed card or call me at our toll-free number to let us know your
decision. We will continue to process your application for credit but will hold your
deposit until we hear from you.
Now that the steel workers' strike is over, we're building Guardsman 10 Lawn
Tractors as fast as possible without sacrificing the famous Guardsman quality.
Because we want you to be fully satisfied with your Guardsman, we assemble each
one carefully so that the Guardsman you receive will not only work flawlessly but
also look good.
By calling or returning your card today, you can receive your Guardsman 10 before
June 15--in plenty of time for you to use it to make those midsummer and early fall
chores easier than ever before.
When you must decline an order because business conditions make it impossible for you to supply the
goods or service (or a reasonable alternative), you need to explain the situation in a straightforward way.
Your reader will appreciate it if you supply information about where and how the requested goods or
services can be obtained. When the business conditions are temporary (strikes, shipping problems, a
manufacturing problem, etc.), include appropriate resale or new sales material to demonstrate your
confidence in the future of the business relationship. Be especially careful, however, to avoid making
promises you may be unable to keep.
Although an increasing number of companies are establishing direct marketing strategies (most notably
on the World Wide Web section of the Internet), many companies still rely on a system of established
dealers. If you work for a company that sells only through established dealers and receive an order, your
objective will be to retain the reader’s goodwill while persuading him or her to visit a local dealer.
Emphasize the benefits of buying through a dealer, as Sample below illustrates.
If you need to decline an order from a dealer, it will be for one of the following reasons:
1. The dealer has not established sufficient credit or is having other credit problems. In this case
your objective is to retain the order on a cash basis, and, for this reason, this type of letter is a
credit refusal and not an order refusal.
2. You already have an exclusive dealer in the area. In this case, your explanation of the
arrangement you have with the existing dealer will justify the refusal. Limit the positive close to
simple goodwill, and, of course, avoid resale, new sales, and positive alternatives.
3. The dealer does not meet your requirements. This is a broad category, covering financial
matters (the dealer wants a larger markup than you offer), character (the dealer has a reputation
for not providing the high-quality customer service you expect from your dealers), and
circumstance (the dealer’s facilities or location are not suitable for your corporate image or
Letter Declining an Order
16767 Bumble Bee Avenue
Logan, UT 84322-2000
January 16, 20xx
Dr. Georgia Lynch
800 Magnolia Street
New Orleans, LA 70114
Dear Dr. Lynch:
You may thank the
reader for "interest,"
but not for the order.
Thank you for your interest in Sindelar Computer Products. The client-server system
you saw advertised is the best Sindelar makes, and it is capable of performing all the
tasks you listed in your letter. Sindelar Computer Systems are used in small to
medium sized medical and dental practices throughout the country for that reason.
Stress the benefits of
Readers may write to
avoid having to talk to
a salesperson, so when
that is the alternative,
make it seem easy and
Because Sindelar equipment and software are available in a wide variety of
configurations, we have established a nationwide chain of dealers who are in a better
position to determine individual needs and provide onsite training and service. So
that you can be sure of receiving the best combination of equipment and software-and the appropriate training for your staff--we have forwarded your request to the
Hard & Software Store at 1121 Goodwin Street in New Orleans. One of the clientserver specialists from there will call you within the next few days to set up your
Include resale to retain
the reader's interest.
The enclosed brochure will provide more information about Sindelar products. The
most common client-server solutions for medical and dental practices are described
on pp. 18-24.
Assistant to the President
A letter refusing credit is more of a persuasive message than a negative message because its objective is
not so much to refuse credit as it is to obtain the customer’s business on a cash basis. The purpose of the
refusal is to show the reader that while a credit purchase might look attractive at the moment, it is in his
or her long-term best interest to avoid risky credit obligations.
When refusing credit, make your reasons clear, and suggest ways the reader can improve credit
eligibility. Emphasize your requirements for credit rather than the ways in which the reader has failed to
establish a good credit rating, and invite the reader to apply for credit again when he or she meets those
requirements. Be careful to avoid promising to extend credit in the future.
Because you still want the customer’s business on a cash basis, much of your letter will consist of
resale. Emphasize the advantages of doing business for cash, but remember that those advantages are
not reasons for refusing credit. Also avoid thanking the reader for the order, which would sound selfish
in view of the situation, and emphasize the reader’s alternatives (such as local bank credit based on
collateral, smaller order, or layaway purchases). Sample below illustrates these principles.
Sun Glow, Inc.
1330 Healy, Macomb, Illinois 61455-7787
Solar Heating Specialists Since 1950
1-800-555-1212 · http://www.solarpower.com
February 9, 20xx
Mr. Robert Wilson
Best Bargain Hardware
2825 Stadium Drive
Boise, ID 83725-2825
Dear Mr. Wilson:
Mention the purpose
of the letter while
focusing on something
with which the reader
can agree. Use the
credit check to clear
and logical reasons for
Your order and application for credit indicate your awareness of the current demand
for solar heating equipment. We're glad to hear that you anticipate increased sales in
A good reason plus an
alternative can make
the refusal clear. Use
passive voice to avoid
accusing the reader of
Subordinate but do not
Because of your excellent reputation, we'd like to work along with you as you
improve your ratio. By taking advantage of our express shipping, you could offer
Sun Glow solar heaters to your customers without needing to maintain a large
inventory. Our store displays and catalog should help you sell Sun Glow products
without increasing your indebtedness. Even with the added charge for express
In making the routine checks you authorized, we discovered that your present level
of indebtedness exceeds the 2 to 1 ratio generally considered safe for credit
transactions. Until that ratio is met, cash transactions would help you avoid further
indebtedness while improving your assets-to-liability ratio. The references you
provided all confirm the excellence of your customer service and state that you
would provide the kind of customer support we expect of our dealers.
omit the negative
aspects of the
shipping, your profit margin would still be above a healthy 20 percent.
Motivate the reader to
By completing the enclosed request form, you'll receive Sun Glow's catalog and our
3' X 5' wall display. Let us know your decision. The peak sales period for many solar
heating panels will be coming up soon, as people review their winter heating bills.
The two quarter-page ads a year in the newspaper of your choice that we provide all
dealers would increase your customer traffic and help you sell Sun Glow products all
Sylvia Everard, Marketing Specialist
When your negative message is written in reply to something the reader has requested, you at least have
a logical starting point for your letter. Readers who have requested favors, adjustments, or credit expect
your reply and know that their request may be denied. Negative announcements and reminders present a
more challenging problem. Even when your readers know that they have not fulfilled some obligations,
they do not fully expect to receive your announcement.
Also, negative announcements and reminders are frequently prepared as form messages to keep their
costs low, which makes personalizing them difficult, and it is easy to forget that the reader is still a
customer—or potential customer—who needs to be encouraged to act in a way that will allow both of
you to benefit rather than a nuisance whose behavior is causing you a problem.
If negative announcements and reminders are to be read and taken seriously, they must offer the reader
something of value. When you can, offer real and specific benefits. You should, at least, offer to discuss
the situation with the reader so that you can reach an agreement.
Not this: I regret to inform you that your admission to candidate status has been delayed until
you complete the following requirements.
Say this: Before your admission to candidate status, you will need to complete the following
Not this: On March 3, we sent you the accidental injury forms and requested that you return
the forms to the Coronary Clinic. It’s now March 27, and we have not yet received your reply.
Say this: To receive your check from America First Insurance, you will need to file the
accidental injury forms we sent you on March 3.
Sample 1 and Sample 2 illustrate these points.
Letters of reprimand also fall into this category. Even though these messages stay within the company,
they typically use letter format because of the formality of the situation. Such letters are usually
preceded by less formal warnings, so the reader should be expecting the negative message. Even so,
when circumstances require you to reprimand an employee for his or her behavior, delay the most
negative aspects of the message until you have reviewed the facts.
To help the person do a better job in the future, be specific about and document what the person has
been doing wrong (too much absenteeism, too many personal phone calls, poor quality control, or other
failures to meet job requirements). You should also specify in the letter what the person needs to do to
perform satisfactorily. Letters of reprimand are often delivered as part of a formal review procedure so
that their contents can be discussed. When writing such letters, use the following structure:
1. Review the facts: Begin with a point of agreement to pace the reader and help establish
rapport. Use positive language to specify what the reader is doing wrong, and explain the
reasons the reader should be aware that the behavior is wrong.
2. State the expected behavior: Tell the reader exactly what should be done to correct the
problem. When appropriate, clarify future review dates and progress expected by those dates. If
failure to correct the problem behavior could result in termination, say so explicitly.
3. Offer to help: Keep the communication channels open. Offer to discuss the situation with the
reader. Ask the reader to come up with his or her own solution to the problem.
These points are illustrated in Sample 3.
110 Factory Avenue
Kent, Ohio 44240- 1000
1- 800- 555- 3212
April 12, 20xx
Mr. George Rambo
Cardboard Container Division
When the reader does
not expect the bad
news, begin with
something that will
help him or her be
prepared for what is
because the negative
message will be
information can help
a form letter seem
less cold. Tell the
reader what to do
Because of another recent downturn in business, we find that some layoffs
have become necessary if the company is to remain solvent. The layoffs
were determined strictly by seniority. Because you have low seniority,
George, your layoff will be for 90 days. Your work has been excellent, and
the layoff is not a reflection of your abilities. To ensure receipt of the
appropriate Workers' Compensation payments and automatic recall, please
stop in the Personnel Office and see one of the Compensation Specialists.
Focus on future
Should the market improve soon, you can be sure that we'll notify you. We
will be glad to have you back at Perry's as soon as possible.
As you know from reading the daily newspapers, local business has been hit
rather hard by the recession. In spite of a 40 percent decline in our business,
Perry's Packaging has tried hard to retain all personnel during this difficult
Perry Mason, President
BANK OF THE AMERICAS
5 Timber Lane · Woodbridge, CT 06525
Voice: 203-555-3212 · Fax: 203-555-3210
December 20, 20xx
Ms. Janice Steiner
1401 Foucher Lane
Woodbridge, CT 06525
Dear Ms. Steiner:
When the fact that
you are writing
makes it obvious that
the news is bad, get
to the point quickly.
Be as positive as
possible, and offer
whatever help you
Amount Due: $23,976.54
September 30, 20xx
Late Charges: $1,298.56
Although your payment is overdue, your previous record indicates a sincere
desire to keep your account up to date. We assume that something has
happened that makes it difficult for you to pay at this time. We'd like to
Solving money problems, whatever they might be, is our business. If you do
have a problem, chances are that it will be easier than you think to find a
solution. We would like to help you protect your credit standing.
Be specific about the
So, please bring your account up to date or let us hear from you soon.
Adrian Everts, Manager
Letter of Reprimand
Research and Development
1900 Banning Road
Bethlehem, PA 18015
215/555-6164, Ext. 2024
14 October 20xx
Mr. Robert Reitenbach
Review the facts in an
As you know from our discussion Friday, many of your staff have expressed
unhappiness with the way you treat them.
Let the reader know
that the situation is
serious and based on
Because our many conversations about this subject haven't helped you change your
behavior, I'm writing this letter so that you'll know that this is an important problem
and deserves your immediate attention. A copy of this letter and a record of our
conversations will be placed in your personnel file.
In the most serious
cases, have an attorney
review your letter
before you send it.
Your long and excellent record with the Company indicates that you have the
potential to succeed in management. Since you have become Production Manager,
however, the unusual number of complaints from your staff suggests that something
serious is wrong. The complaints that bother me the most are the name calling and
the public ridicule to which you frequently subject your staff.
For you to be successful as Production Manager, you'll need the cooperation of each
employee in your Department. To those employees, you are the Company's
spokesperson. Their loyalty to you is an important factor in their motivation to do a
good job for the Company.
State the expected
To earn their loyalty, you'll need to take the time to listen to them and to take their
problems seriously. You'll find that most production problems can be traced to a
simple solution when management and staff work together.
Offer to help. Specify
possible courses of
My main concern is to help you solve the problem of your relationship with your
staff. It's important to the Company and to your career that we come up with a
workable solution quickly. To help you decide on a course of action, I've arranged
for you to meet with Dr. Lenny Bruce on Tuesday, 11 November, at 10:00 a.m., and
for you to take a week of vacation starting today.
Your appointment with Dr. Bruce will be at company expense, as will any future
appointments he feels might be necessary. The enclosed card provides you with his
address and phone number.
Tell the reader exactly
what you expect to
have happen next.
When you report back to work a week from today, see me first. I'd like to hear your
plans for improving your working relationship with your staff at that time.
Pauline Anderson, VP--Personnel
Sometimes you must apologize for a negative announcement. If you have to postpone or cancel an
engagement at the last minute or otherwise renege on a commitment to a reader, an apology may be
necessary and appropriate.
Unlike most apologies (see “Apologies” in Conveying Good News), apologies for negative
announcements should be delayed until you have presented the reason. Unless you must return a check
or some other obvious indicator of the bad news, beginning such a message with I’m sorry would reveal
the negative content before the reader is prepared to receive it. In such cases, pace the reader’s
expectation by beginning with something with which the reader will agree, but keep it brief, and focus
on the actual reason you are writing:
Not this: It certainly has been hot this summer. [The reader may agree but will wonder why
you are writing.]
Say this: The Sales and Marketing convention you are planning for September appears to be
shaping up nicely. [The reader will know what the letter is about and will wonder what you will
say next, so introduce your reason(s) quickly.]
Apologize either immediately before or immediately after clarifying the negative aspect. Keep the
apology brief to avoid encouraging the reader to feel worse than she or he already does. When you can
do so appropriately, suggest alternatives that will help the reader solve the problem caused by your
inability to keep your commitment. The closing should be positive and forward-looking. Be careful
about making new promises, which may not be taken seriously at this point, and avoid the temptation to
Sample below illustrates these points.
Negative Announcement Including an Apology
Seattle Construction Supplies
10 Mackenzie Avenue
206- 555- 1999
Seattle, WI 98195- 7410
December 9, 20xx
Dr. Lucy Baines
College of Business
Grants Pass, OR 97526
Keep the opening
brief. Pace the reader's
Introduce the reasons
the negative element,
and keep the apology
The Sales/Marketing convention you are planning for next month appears to be
shaping up nicely, Lucy.
Help the reader when
My assistant, Roger Jackson, would be available to speak in my place. He is young
(23) and inexperienced, but he is rapidly learning techniques for marketing heavy
machinery and would work hard to provide a high-quality presentation. I will be
glad to ask him if you wish.
When you first asked me to speak, I was glad to agree because January has always
been our slack month here in Seattle. Because January is usually so slow, my boss
has decided to send me to Anchorage, Alaska, where I will spend the entire month
calling on construction companies. For this reason, I will be unable to speak at the
convention as planned. I'm sorry to be giving you such short notice, but I learned
only yesterday that I would be going to Alaska.
Your closing should be
positive and forwardlooking. Avoid
restating the apology.
Please let me know whether you would like me to speak to Jackson about presenting
in my place, and good luck with the convention.
Mary Lou Mealor, Director