Handling Tricky Situations
How to Deliver Bad News
When you need to deliver bad news, you face a peculiar set of challenges. First, you need your audience to read your entire message, not bail at first mention of the negative news. Second, clinical studies established that readers respond disproportionately strongly to the first thing they read. This finding is unsurprising, given that human beings have a singular predilection to recall negative events more accurately and durably than they do positive events, possibly a legacy of our need to learn how to survive in a harsh environment. As a result, you now face a thorny challenge: how do you get readers to both read your message and still maintain a good relationship with your audience?
Obviously, this kind of bad news involves informing job candidates they failed to get the job, not employees that you're firing them. In this melt-down bad-news scenario, you want the reader to get the point clearly and unequivocally. Otherwise, you can run the risk of litigation over a letter of termination that fails to read clearly like one.
In contrast, in the more common, wince-inducing-but-not-terminal bad news, you generally need to maintain a good relationship with your audience. In some instances, you might even need your audience to comply with a set of directives, increasing the important of your readers getting to the end of the message. To do so, you rely on what we call the "thin sandwich." First, begin with a neutral paragraph, touching, if you can, on shared values or common ground you share with your audience.