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Usually when we show off our writing skills for a client we give examples of positive messages, simply because we want them to form positive associations with our company. However, our expertise goes far beyond this. Here are a few things we've discovered that are important to keep in mind when you're giving someone news that they don't want to hear.
1. The "you" centered attitude
In any business writing you should favor statements that are relevant to your audience, instead of focusing on how "I" feels. Managing audience reactions is always important, and that goes double when the reaction will likely be very strong and emotional. Never lay on blame, find the silver lining, and make sure any justification you provide is concrete.
You should always consider the temperament and culture of people receiving your message, in both international, cross cultural situations and even between people who work in the same building. Nothing can accentuate differences in a diverse workplace like bad news. However, through respect and mindfulness, even these barriers can be overcome.
There are many ways that people react to messages they don’t want to get, many of which are self-destructive or otherwise damaging. The best way you can keep this from happening is keeping a positive outlook, and write these messages in a way that is clear and realistic while still guiding the receiver towards the best course of action. You won’t be able to fix everything in one message, but by keeping up this skill over a whole history of both good and bad messages your attitude can more influence on others than you think.
2. Keep it clear
Often when people take a “you” approach they end up trying to perform some sort of magic trick on the receiver, fooling them into thinking bad news is good. They do this by burying the main subject of the message, making it hard to find when the reader first skims it. This illusion is easy to see through, and once a reader does they will learn to not trust you.
This doesn't mean you should start off with the bad news, as that makes the receiver feel like you just don't care. Instead, begin with the concrete context for the situation, building up to your main subject. Once you've done that, outline exactly what is going to happen next.
The goal is to encourage a broad view of the situation, one that doesn't ignore the negative, but doesn't dwell on it beyond understanding what happened. A much better use of time is working towards the positive.
3. Respect and dignity
Even if you do follow the previous two rules, none of that will matter if you don't treat people with dignity and sincere respect. Often this has nothing to do with how you write and everything to do with nonverbal factors: such as giving the news in person or what you do in response to bad news.
As much as we strive for clear and meaningful communication, even we understand that such things don't mean much unless backed up by action. This is something understood in any culture, and by workers from the mailroom to the boardroom. What we as a communications firm can do is frame your actions in the right context, giving such things an even greater return.
It's never gets easy to give bad news, but through practice and keeping the rules above in mind you will get better at it. Just remember to adapt your message to your audience, while at the same time keeping the core of your message clear. Always back up your message with action that conveys respect and dignity. It can be challenging, but it is what great leadership entails.
Portions of this post are adapted from Excellence in Business Communication by John V. Thill and Courtland L. Bovée, as well as "The 10 Commandments for Delivering Bad News" by Robert Bies, which you can read online at Forbes.
Raj Ramanan, the cofounder of Loku, recently pooled all of his experiences, good and bad, with consulting firms into a Forbes article so that you can make the best decision for your company.
The first thing Ramanan pointed out was the political leverage a company has over a consulting firm, but we don't like to think of it that way. We like to think of as a two way street of support and suggestions, so that when you have an unpopular opinion with a board or the stockholders, you'll have someone to have your back. Our main priority is working together to get the best end results. It's us against the world.
Ramanan also states that in large companies, cross functional problem solving rarely occurs. This is probably because the employees form a group thinking personality over time. At our consulting firm, we hire only the most diverse staff of experience in order to make sure this doesn't happen. Their individuality is what makes us unique. We don't hire a GPA or test scores, but real people with real experiences.
We may not yet be experts in your industry, company, or particular issue, but we will be. We've said before and we'll say it again, you're our main priority. We will be able to do what your company can't because we will dedicate all of our time and and energy to whatever needs to be done. Our employees are not only dedicated to their jobs, but to you.
Ramanan pointed out that some firms like to put companies on retainer and spend only an hour a month discussing the operation. We won't don't that. Like we said before, you're our main priority. We'll be your best friend, your coach, your therapist. We'll be there with you the entire way. Your problems are our problems, and we'll do anything for you.
Another great point that Ramanan pointed out is that we don't have to deal with stakeholders or the clients, and that's because you're our client. Not them. We may not make the decision for you, but we will help you when it comes to accumulating all of the research to make the decision, or to come up with decisions when it seems like there are clouds within the silver lining.
You don't have to worry about imposing limits or narrowing down the project for us, because we've already set the bar pretty high. We'll set up times to check in and update with you, not the other way around. You shouldn't have to do any of the work. That's our job.
We don't hire from the same talent pool. We're not interchangeable. We'll get competitive in the bid process and we'll win. In the end, working with you is the award.
Last but not least, you don't have to demand partner time, because our partners will be demanding time with you. We don't just want a paycheck or to see you once a month, we want to see you all of the time! This isn't just a business, this is a family.