One significant way to both be clear and show respect to your reader is to use a positive writing style. Following are some guidelines on writing positively.

Ten "To-Do's"

  1. Focus on readers' needs, wants, and options. Focus on what you can do for them.
  2. Be honest. Communication is at its best when it is grounded in honesty.
  3. Be genuine. Keeping these guidelines in mind, the best style is your own style.
  4. Be specific. Not "This spreadsheet is wrong" but "This spreadsheet needs to show our third quarter earnings."
  5. Be aware of your audience. For example: Some people will want to see the big picture; others will want just the details that apply to them. Some people will want a more personal communication; others will want more distance.
  6. Act confident, whether or not you feel confident.
  7. If you do need to apologize for something, provide an action plan for the future.
  8. Stress any benefits to your readers.
  9. When disagreeing or giving criticism, specify your feelings about what someone has done rather than expressing your negative opinion of someone or their ideas. Not "You're always late" but "I'm frustrated when you're late" Not "That won't work" but "I'm not comfortable with that idea."
  10. Use the following grammatical constructions to emphasize the positive:

Positive language

Use passive verbs and impersonal, non-blaming language. Not "You caused this", but "Apparently the air pressure was not monitored". Not "You must get approval from the director before you publish this", but "Articles must be approved by the director before being published", or "All employees must get approval from the director before publishing their articles in the newsletter".

Make the positive the focus of your sentences: Not "This warranty will expire 15 June" but "This warranty is effective until 15 June". Not "We can only pay you 50% of what you have requested" but "We can refund you 50% of what you requested".

Embed the negative message in a positive sentence:

  • Put the negative message first and follow it with good news preceded by "but", "although", or "however": "The approach you're taking could be more assertive, but your willingness to speak up is commendable".
  • Put the negative message in between two positives, and avoid "but", "although", or "however" to introduce the negative: "Your willingness to speak up is commendable; the approach you're taking could be more assertive. You make insightful comments."
  • When embedding negative messages in a positive sentence, make the positive message the main clause and the negative message a subordinate clause: "Even though your money cannot be refunded, Allred Enterprises can offer you an exchange on the merchandise you purchased for up to five years after your purchase date."

Ten "Not-To-Do's"

  1. Avoid focusing on what you can't or won't do.
  2. Avoid over-emphasizing the negative.
  3. If you do need to apologize for something, avoid excuses and self-debasement.
  4. Don't apologize for being clear and honest.
  5. Don't tell your readers how they should feel, and don't presume you know how they feel or what they think.
  6. Don't tell people what they should do about things they are responsible for.
  7. Avoid conditions: Not "If you want to see an example . . ." but "Enclosed is an example". Not ". . . if that helps", rather, omit the phrase. It's more helpful and sounds more confident to act without giving conditions to the reader.
  8. Avoid any unnecessary negative information.
  9. When disagreeing or giving criticism, don't speak for others. Not "No one agrees" but "I don't agree."
  10. Avoid negative words and phrases.

Words and phrases to avoid

  • Except where complimenting or showing appreciation, avoid using "you" since it can sound like the reader is being blamed.
  • To introduce the bad news, avoid "but", "although", and "however" since those words signal the reader to focus on the bad news.
  • Though in isolation they don't seem negative, the phrases "I hope" and "I trust that" lack confidence and should be avoided in bad news letters.
  • Here are some other negative words and phrases to avoid: afraid, anxious, are not able to, avoid, bad, cannot, careless, damage, delay, deny, difficulty, disapprove, dissatisfied, eliminate, error, except, fail, fault, fear, hesitate, ignore, impossible, inadequate, inconvenient, lacking, loss, mistake, missing, must refuse, never, no, not, problem, regret, sorry, terrible, trouble, weakness, worry, wrong, unclear, unfair, unfortunately, unreliable, unsure

You will normally be more effective communicating bad news if you have made a habit of noticing and communicating positive things too.