Choose Your Words Carefully: How to Use Your Writing to Defuse a Bad Situation

We’ve all been there before. A client or an employer is unhappy, or perhaps asking some tough questions, and a lot depends on how you choose to respond. The tone of your writing and your choice of words is extremely important in these situations, and how you come across to your audience might make or break an important business deal.

Assuming that you must respond in writing (via email, for example), here is a list of things to keep in mind.

1. Regulate the tone and voice of your response.

Tone and voice are both extremely important when writing in a business context. As a quick review, tone refers to the writer’s attitude toward his/her subject, while voice is a little bit harder to define. According to Case Western Reserve’s Sage Writing Guide, “Voice is that peculiar — sometimes very peculiar — quality that allows the audience to read a sentence and know that you wrote it.”

You’ll need to carefully regulate your use of both in this sort of scenario. You don’t want to sound irritated, impatient, or confrontational. Your voice should send the message that you are an expert and you are in control of the situation. Accomplishing this, however, is often easier said than done.

Consider your writing as objectively as you can. Try reading your sentences out loud, placing emphasis on different words and altering your tone of voice. Place yourself in your audience’s shoes and try to keep your meaning as clear and unambiguous as possible. Ask yourself what your response says about you and your role in the situation.

2. Consider the context of your writing carefully.

The tone of your writing should vary somewhat according to who you are addressing and why. Is this your boss, or is this a co-worker? A client? How long have you known this person (or people)? Are you writing to give them bad news, or are you clarifying a difficult situation?

Consider what it is you are trying to accomplish and modify the content of your writing accordingly. Always keep your goals in mind.

3. Pay attention to structure.

If you have to give bad news, it’s best not to immediately come out and say it. Start with something positive or at the very least neutral to ease your audience into the rest of the content.

Van Rhys, Meyer and Sebranek offer the following model for giving bad news in Write for Business, called BEBE (buffer, explanation, bad news plus alternative, exit) :

  • Buffer–for example, ” Thank you for your application and the interview yesterday. Our team has reviewed your credentials and come to a decision.”
  • Explanation–give the facts, e.g. “We received an overwhelming number of applications from highly qualified individuals for this position.”
  • Bad news plus alternative–delivered clearly and without emotion, e.g. “Unfortunately, we are unable to offer the position to you at this time. However, we will keep your application in our files and we will let you know if another opportunity arises.”
  • Exit–use a polite and (if possible) positive closing statement.

4. Choose words with neutral connotations

This is definitely not the time and place to get emotional or vent your frustration. If you’re already fired up, take a few minutes to calm down and relax before you attempt to compose your writing. Avoid passive-aggressive phrases like “It seems that…” or “It appears…”. Be as direct and straightforward as possible. It is also best to avoid intensifiers like “really,” “absolutely,” and “totally.” These often make you sound upset or agitated.

5. Don’t beat around the bush

Avoiding the facts makes you sound nervous and unsure. So does padding your writing with unnecessary material. Even if you are at fault, it’s best to be as direct as possible. Beating around the bush will only make you look worse in the long run. And avoid playing the blame game. Again, it is crucial that your writing come across as unemotional as possible.

6. Ask someone else to read it first

I cannot stress enough how helpful a good proofreader can be. Have a friend or co-worker that you trust look over your message before you send it. Two sets of eyes are always better than one. Not only will asking someone to proofread your work decrease the odds that it will contain typos or grammatical errors, but it also offers you the chance to see how someone else interprets your tone. Does it come across as neutral and professional, or confrontational and irate? These questions are difficult to answer yourself.

7. Choose an appropriate sign-off

Whether you are writing a letter or an email, your sign-off will leave a lasting impression on your reader/s. There are many options to choose from, and it’s mostly a matter of personal preference; some of the most common sign-offs are “Best”, “Sincerely”, “Yours”, etc. Depending on the context, you may want to use whatever sign-off you are most comfortable with, or you may want to tailor it to the situation. Whatever you decide to use, make sure it fits the overall tone of the message.

Savvy business writing is a skill that takes years to develop, and it is often a trial-and-error process. These tips should give you a head start in composing professional correspondences that inform and defuse at the same time.

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