Direct Approach vs. Indirect Approach

How well your audience will react to bad news depends on other factors besides how you present the bad news. For example, if the news is not a surprise to your reader(s), or if they've got more options, they are more likely to react positively. Nevertheless showing respect to your audience and taking the time to present the news in a reasonable and positive way soften the blow and encourage your audience to respond to you as the messenger in a positive way. Your first step is to choose which approach to use.

There are two approaches to writing a bad news letter:

  1. Direct approach: presents the bad news first
  2. Indirect approach: says something positive first and then presents the bad news

In general consider the situation, consider your audience's personality, and use your best judgment in deciding which approach to use. Consider which approach will be the most clear and the most respectful to your audience. Use the following guidelines to help you.

Direct approach

The direct approach is usually best in the following situations:

  • The bad news will be considered insignificant or your reader is already expecting it.
  • The reader may skip or ignore the bad news.
  • You want to emphasize the bad news. For example, you have already said "no" several times, and your reader keeps asking for the same thing.
  • The reader prefers a direct style and will see the indirect approach as a waste of time, insincere, or condescending. If the reader has already corresponded with you using the direct style, you're safe also using the direct style.
  • Your relationship with your reader is very close.
  • Your relationship with your reader is strained or suspicious. With the direct style, a suspicious reader won't be likely to feel he or she is being given the "runaround".

The direct approach is also most commonly used in situations where the bad news is being presented orally.

Indirect approach

For all other situations, the indirect approach is usually most effective. If the bad news is first, many readers won't continue reading the letter, and the chance to make a positive impression and explain your rationale has been lost. Thus the indirect approach encourages readers to read the whole letter, making it more likely that the positives and the rationale will be emphasized to your readers.