Improving Our Students’ Negative Messages

This week I’m writing about an issue from last term that still bothers me—the fact that my business writing students did such a weak job on their final assignment of the quarter, the negative message.

In fact, except for a few glowing exceptions, my students always turn in disappointing efforts for this assignment. And these are mostly juniors and seniors, mind you—and at the end of the term, when their skills are supposed to be sharpest.

What do they do wrong? Everything but include the word “unfortunately”—and they avoid that mistake only because I expressly forbid the use of this word. They . . .

  • hint too much in the opening that bad news is coming, or say something completely off topic, or open so cheerfully that the bad news that follows is especially disappointing.
  • fall all over themselves trying to explain why they can’t do what the reader wants. Their reasons are written in stuffy language, or dripping with guilt, or illogical—and some students just pack in every reason they can think of, creating an “I’m grasping at any straw here” effect.
  • state the negative news too negatively and, in general, include more negatives in the message than necessary—or try to write too positively, creating an impression of insincere, inappropriate joviality.
  • offer alternative solutions that are too big (e.g., too expensive, take too much effort), too little (they look grudging and dinky), or off target (e.g., a “solution” that won’t really help or that the reader can already acquire elsewhere). Or, here, too, they pack in every conceivable compromise measure they can think of.
  • conclude with a generic goodwill comment that shows they have already stopped thinking about the reader.

Of course, one reason for these problems is that negative messages are hard to write, for anyone. No one likes to write these because they’re so . . . well, negative. And therein may lie the root problem.

“Oh, no—how will I keep from hurting his feelings?” “She’s really going to be disappointed.” “It’ll take a lot of work to let him down easy.” “They won’t like me once I say this.” These are all understandable feelings when one sits down to write a negative message.

The best advice I’ve found for dealing with them comes from William Ury, a negotiations expert. In The Power of a Positive No, he recommends that you first let your negative feelings have their say—inside your head. But then you move on to your “yes” position—the secure, confident position of having good reasons for your “no.” The more confident you are that you’re doing the right, reasonable thing, the more sincere, positive, and helpful you can be when communicating negative news.

Given my own experience with writing negative messages, I firmly agree with Ury. Feeling confident about one’s position can make every part of the message, from the opening to the goodwill ending, easier to write and more effective.

When my class is tackling its negative-message assignment, we do identify good reasons for saying “no.” For example, last term, the challenge was to turn down an invitation to sponsor a non-profit organization’s event, and we discussed what the case stated were the main reasons for the refusal: that the company didn’t have enough money to sponsor more community-service efforts than it was already sponsoring and, based on employee input, had already chosen the organizations it would support for the foreseeable future. But we could have taken our thinking further with such questions as these:

  • What would happen to the company if it responded “yes” to all such requests for money? What would be the consequences? Who would suffer?
  • On what basis does the company support the community-service efforts it does support? Why do these choices make sense, given the purpose and values of the company?

With a firmer belief in the justness of their position, students might have been able to think more calmly and positively about these questions:

  • What common ground does your company share with the reader’s organization? How can you use this common ground to help the reader understand your position?
  • Given the values that you and your reader share and the constraints within which your company has to operate, what can you offer?

Doing a better job of helping my students find good reasons for their “no” and really believe that they are good reasons is the strategy I plan to try the next time around.

If you’re using successful strategies for teaching this tricky genre, we’d love to hear them.