The tone of email continues to have destructive consequences in the workplace. Exercising restraint and using good judgment can bring long-term benefits.


Conveying disappointing or unpleasant news will always be necessary, and although such information often should be communicated face-to-face, the discussion frequently starts in an email, and there is a way to do it effectively. Open gently, deliver the disappointing news, and close with factual information and a calm tone.

Unpleasant information does not always involve criticism. A cost overrun, a project that needs to be postponed, or a decision not to let someone attend a conference are all examples of news that will not please the reader, so getting to the point in the opening paragraph is not necessarily your objective. Depending on the nature and sensitivity of the information, you might be able to deliver it in the opening paragraph, but you often will want to build a buffer by easing into the message, thereby cushioning the reader for the disappointment.

Open with something that is least neutral, which means fact-based information, which the reader cannot argue with. You want to keep the reader on the page, so don’t alienate the reader immediately, as writers, in a fit of anger, often do. Nearly 23 years after email became prevalent in business, people still don’t get this point. Don’t be an attack dog.

Here is one example. A senior manager at a Texas financial services firm explained to her boss, apologetically, that she could not meet a deadline that she had originally set for herself because of two big projects that were given to her since then. She said she still wanted to work with him on the assignment, and she offered an alternative solution, but the boss, a senior vice president, answered her this way: “I’m disappointed — mad about your email. You are three weeks late on your deadline, and you tell me you have another important project. This is unacceptable. Is this your standard? Are you going to do your job, or do I need to get someone else to finish the project?”

Be aware of the emotional overtone of your writing. Your real purpose in writing a “bad news” message is not to vent your anger but to induce a change in the reader’s behavior, to maintain your credibility, and to preserve your relationship with the reader. To do that, you need the reader to see the merits of your position. The more positive and diplomatic you are, the more empathetic, helpful, and collaborative you are, the more likely you are to get the results you want.

You can get your point across by being professionally direct, which means being firm and specific but also tactful. After all, you might be on the receiving end of a similar message someday.


These and numerous other writing techniques will be part of a webinar September 9 called Influencing Your Audience: Crafting Messages that Motivate. Register here to learn to write persuasive messages that influence opinion and motivate human behavior, even in email.

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at

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