How to write a ‘bad news’ email – in 4 easy steps

Increasing your prices. Rejecting an enthusiastic candidate. Letting your customer know you can’t provide what they want.

Informing people of bad news is a reality of business and life. And although it’s commonplace, so many people get it… so wrong.

That’s because they cloud the truth with jargon, make the message too harsh or offer no real take away.

When it comes to delivering bad news, tact is critical. Even though it can’t erase what’s happened, it will retain your credibility and relationships.

So here’s your step-by-step guide to breaking bad news – the good way.

1. Open with a positive

How you contextualise the bad news is crucial. It can settle your reader’s temper… or fuel it. So start with something positive, such as:

  • Describing what went well
  • Offering gratitude for their input or work so far
  • Presenting an optimistic, long-term view

By beginning your writing on a positive note – often referred to as a ‘buffer sentence’ – you can keep your reader onside.

Example buffer sentences include:

  • Thank you for choosing XYZ agency for all your creative needs. 
  • Thank you for your well-written application.
  • Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our products.

Important: Although your buffer must be positive, it should never be so positive that it implies you are about to say ‘yes’. 

Also, don’t go on and on. Include 1-2 short buffer sentences at most.

2. Explain what – and why

Next, explain what has happened and why. This will help your audience understand and sympathise with your position.

Here are some examples:

  • This year, we’ve faced many unwelcome increases in our operational costs.
  • However, we feel your experience is not closely aligned with the role we’re seeking to fill. 
  • On the day you placed your order, we had over 7,000 requests for this product.

What makes these explanations effective? They’re direct, clear and sincere. They also avoid vague jargon like this:

  • As our business evolves, we’ve had to pivot our strategic blueprint.
  • Our current plan isn’t moving the needle at the pace we had anticipated.
  • The September processes are no longer best practice.

3. Keep the bad news clear, concise – and truthful

When writing the negative news, your aim is to leave no room for confusion. 

If your reader has to work hard to untangle what you mean, you will only frustrate them further. Take these clear examples:

  • Our fees are increasing by 5% across the board as of 1 July 2024.
  • Accordingly, we won’t be moving forward with your application. 
  • This unusually high demand means your product is temporarily out of stock.

These sentences are straightforward. But they also show empathy, tact and honesty.

4. Finish with a solution, lesson or plan

Bad things happen all the time. Your reader gets this. What they care about then, is how you respond to the situation.

Tell your reader what these events have taught you. Or if possible, offer a solution.

You can also share how you’ll prevent similar incidents from occurring again. Just make sure your response is credible and practical.

Check out these examples:

  • However, please know you will continue to receive the exceptional service you’ve come to expect from our team.
  • We are confident you will be snapped up by another business in no time with a portfolio as impressive as yours.  
  • The good news is your product will ship this Monday. In the meantime, please enjoy 20% off your next purchase…

Interested in learning the art and science of effective business writing? Learn more about Business Writing Essentials for teams or enrol in our public course.