You might be annoyed when you write an email that communicates unpleasant news, but if you want results, use restraint and tact. Don’t be assaultive.
Everyone has to write the “bad news” message at some point, but there is way to do it effectively. Open gently, then deliver the disappointing news, and close with something that is at least neutral and perhaps even helpful to the reader.
The bad-news message does not always involve criticism; it might be about a cost overrun, a project that needs to be postponed, or a decision not to let someone attend a conference. But the information in such a message will not please the reader, so getting to the point in the opening paragraph is not necessarily your objective. Instead, cushion the reader for the disappointment by easing into the message.
Open with something that is positive or at least neutral. Neutral means fact-based information, which the reader cannot argue with. Afterall, you want to keep the reader on the page, so don’t anger the reader immediately. Nearly 20 years after email became prevalent in business, people still don’t get this point. They sit down at the keyboard like an attack dog.
Here is how one person started a message when she felt another person was intruding on her turf: I was extremely surprised and put off by your email. The management of this event is my responsibility, because the budget is coming out of our department. In the future, managing this event will be my domain. Having two people manage the process creates confusion and duplication.
A more tactful approach would have been to pick up the phone, but if you were to write a response, try opening with I am not sure I am clear about your message; perhaps we can have a phone conversation. Or perhaps this: Thanks for your message. It often is helpful to have two people manage a process, but given that this event is funded from the marketing department’s budget, we should make the process as efficient as possible.”
Then get into the details of the disappointing news. Don’t delay the news until the third or fourth paragraph, because readers are not stupid. They can sense from the tone and content that they are leading into information they will not be happy about. Be tactful and professional, but you usually can deliver the news in the second paragraph, and eventually, close the message with something that helps the reader. You might provide alternatives or offer to help if the person wants to talk further.
Be aware of the emotional overtone of your writing. Your real purpose in writing a message such as this is not to vent your anger but to induce a change in the reader’s behavior. To do that, you need to build a rapport with the reader. You need the reader to see the merits of your position. The more positive and diplomatic you are in such a message, 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 diplomatic. Afterall, you might be on the receiving end someday.