The only element required in a bad news letter is the bad news itself, but you will usually use other elements. Use your knowledge of your audience and the situation to determine what other elements to use.


In choosing the approach to take with your audience and in choosing which elements to include, remember these two rules:

  1. Be clear about the bad news.
  2. Be respectful to your audience.

1 - Positive Opening

If you're using the direct approach, omit the positive opening. But if you're using the indirect approach, start your letter by specifying something positive.

Possible positive openings:

  • Complimenting audience
  • Expressing appreciation for something your audience has done
  • Expressing agreement
  • Showing support
  • Showing understanding or empathy
  • Sharing relevant information or news

Avoid the following in a positive opening:

  • Saying something irrelevant
  • Misleading your audience so they expect positive news
  • Being insincere or condescending
  • Making it too long or wordy

Sometimes adding positive information, either in the opening or closing is perceived as a waste of time, insincere, or condescending, so be as aware of your audience as possible.

2 - Rationale

In most cases you will want to include a rationale with the bad news. The two exceptions are 1) when the rationale makes you or your organization look bad, and 2) when your rationale is weak.

Location of rationale: Direct Approach vs. Indirect Approach

Usually the rationale will go before the bad news so that the reader(s) is guided to the bad news as a logical conclusion to the rationale. In this way, the reader(s) is more likely to come to the same conclusion that you have before even reading the bad news so that the bad news seems reasonable and logical, and doesn't come as a surprise to the reader(s). However, when using the direct approach, if the rationale cannot be stated in the same sentence as the bad news, put the rationale after the bad news.

Being accurate and specific

Be accurate and as specific about what, when, where, and how as possible. Give as many details as possible to explain the reasoning behind the bad news. If possible, state benefits to your reader as a result of the bad news, for example, your refusing to provide certain customer requests may enable you to keep costs low for the customers, so you might start your rationale by explaining that you are trying to keep costs low for customers. Avoid generalizations like "it's against company policy" when saying no to a request, or "the job market has been very competitive" when rejecting a job applicant. Readers are more likely to respond positively and accept bad news if they know exactly why.

Order of reasons

If you have several reasons for the bad news, e.g., several reasons for saying no, use your strongest reasons and leave out any weak reasons. Start with your strongest reason, and end with a non-sender-related reason. For example, in announcing a price increase, start with the reason "our suppliers are now charging us more", and end by detailing the additional services your company is providing.

Length of rationale

Some rationales can be covered in one sentence or one clause. Others will take a paragraph or two. Stay as brief as possible, but don't omit details that will contribute to the persuasiveness of your reasoning.

3 - Bad News

The bad news should be clearly and succinctly stated using a positive style, as discussed in the Style section. Keep it brief, but make sure it's clear.

4 - Compensation

If you can, offer other options, help, ideas, or some other compensation. For example, if you're saying no to a request for information, you might be able to offer a suggestion for other ways your reader can get the same information. If you're asking employees to adapt to a new procedure, you may be able to offer a bonus or new benefit.

5 - Positive Closing

As with a positive opening, don't include a closing if you think your audience will appreciate more brevity and directness. And as with a positive opening, if you do use a closing, avoid being insincere, irrelevant, or too wordy. The closing should be optimistic and encouraging about the future by expressing your confidence in your audience and by leaving the door open to more opportunities of working together. If appropriate, close your letter by inviting your reader(s) to ask questions or express concerns. But avoid referring to the bad news in the closing.