How do you break bad news gently? How can you ask a colleague to do something without sounding bossy? How can you respond to a customer’s complaint tactfully? How can you get more warmth into your writing?
These are some of the most common questions I’ve been asked over the years. There are loads of things you can do to create a positive tone. But here are four easy ways to get you started.
1. Get your intros and endings right
Let’s take customer complaint responses. The first thing your reader reads sets the tone for what follows. And how you sign off is what they’re most likely to remember. So make your intros and endings human.
Further to your correspondence of 14 September, I can confirm that your complaint has been investigated.
Thank you for your email of 14 September. I’m very sorry you had to write in to complain.
2. Avoid clichés and tired phrases
How many times have read the following phrases?
- Please accept our sincerest apologies for any inconvenience caused (We’re really sorry we let you down?)
- Due to minor technical difficulties… (One of our servers in Swindon went down for 30 minutes?)
- We take customer feedback very seriously (A redundant statement: what would the opposite be?)
3. Avoid negative framing to be tactful and positive
‘Negative framing’ is something we often default to in writing, especially if we’re feeling hassled or have a tight deadline. But it can really affect the tone. Whenever you need something, you can usually phrase it in a positive way. Take the following examples:
|Negative framing||Positive framing|
|If you don’t complete the online form by 12 January, we won’t be able to send you the £50 shopping voucher.||Complete the online form by 12 January and we will send you a £50 shopping voucher.|
|We can’t provide the information unless we receive proof of your identity.||We’re happy to provide the information once we receive proof of your identity.|
|I need the sales figures by this Friday. Otherwise, the committee will criticise us at Monday’s meeting.||We can impress the committee at Monday’s meeting if you send me the sales figures by this Friday.|
4. Take the sting out of ‘negative’ situations
Another way you can take the sting out of something potentially negative is to avoid blaming, judging and criticizing your reader.
Compare the following three statements:
- You sent us the information after the deadline.
- Your information reached us after the deadline.
- We received your information after deadline.
Notice how the statement becomes progressively softer when you remove the blame from the reader.
Another way of doing this is by careful use of the passive voice. (It’s a good idea to minimize the passive, but it can be useful in this context.)
Rather than ‘You completed the form incorrectly,’ you might write, ‘The form was completed incorrectly.’
For more on writing well under pressure, see my blog post ‘Emailing with empathy: seven steps to writing well during a crisis.’