Negative Messages

When writing negative messages, expect disappointment or anger.
Here's some Good News: our purpose is not to make your reader like the message, while we do, of course, write to reduce any negative reactions to the message.


Primary purposes are distinct for the negative message:

Secondary purposes are the same as for the informative/positive message. Both a positive/informative message and a negative message, if effective, should

Analyze the situation, problem, and audience first (see the situational/audience analysis questions from Chapter 1)

Understand not only the audience but the message to deliver: the purpose, the information to include, the ways to build support (reasons/alternatives/benefits), the objections your audience(s) may have, the negatives that might be de-emphasized, and the aspects of the rhetorical situation that will affect my audience's response.

Order the Information

As with any message, plan before drafting, using this order for the information:

1. Give the reason before the refusal/negative statement when you have a reason that
     readers will understand and accept (make it "water tight")
2. Give the negative information or refusal just once, clearly, compactly
3. Bury the negative (place it between the reason and any alternatives or benefits)
     ~ it may be cast as a phrase instead of an entire sentence
     ~ place it in the middle of a paragraph (not at the beginning or end, which creates
3. Present an alternative, compromise, or benefit if available
4. End with a positive, personal, forward-looking statement

Remember to place (literally, bury) the actual negative information within the sentence and/or paragraph:

Note on Buffers: use a buffer only if you have a good one -- place it first, before the reason. If it is cheesy, it will break goodwill.

Weak (used in a message announcing a rate increase): Low insurance premiums and great coverage are features you receive in choosing Bubba's Insurance Services.
Better: Don't use this buffer.
Best: Thank the reader for choosing Bubba's Insurance Services.

The negative statement is cast as a Passive and Impersonal statement (see Appendix B if you need help with passive constructions):

Weak: You did not pay the bill.
Better: Payment was not received on this account.


Create Positive Emphasis

                Positive + but (or however) + Negative = negative emphasis
                Weak: The report was complete and was accepted by our client but arrived three days late.

               Negative + but (or however) + Positive = positive emphasis
               Better: The report arrived late but was complete and was accepted by our client.
               Even better: Although the report arrived late, it was complete and was accepted by our client.

Avoid Double Negatives

Although a double negative technically makes a positive ("not messy" means "tidy"), the double negative works with two negative words (not + messy). The rule is, use the positive word.

Avoid saying what is not (double negative), but say what IS (with the positive word):

Weak: You will find your shipment is not delayed despite the weather.
Better: Your shipment is on time despite the weather.

Weak: Please do not be late for all meetings during the conference.
Better: Please be on time for all meetings during the conference.

Avoid Negative Phrases

I am afraid that we cannot....
I am sorry that we are unable....
I am sure you will agree that....

Reasons (use these only if they would be accepted by the reader)

· Make the reason for the negative clear and convincing
     If you do not have a good reason, omit the reason rather than use a weak one
     If you have several reasons, present only those which are strong
· Donít hide behind company policy (see page 347 for why).  If possible, show readers how they will benefit from 
     the policy; if they do not benefit, donít mention the policy at all
· Avoid saying you cannot do something (instead stress what the reader receives, can do, or can obtain...)


· De-emphasize the refusal by putting it in the same paragraph as the reason (it will
    be emphasized if standing alone as a paragraph
· Make certain the implication is clear: you are eliminating further correspondence on
    the issue

Alternatives (if available) will

   · Offer the readers another way to get what they want
   · Suggest you care about their needs
   · Enable the readers to reestablish their own ego (essentially) when you set limits on their
        freedom by saying no
   · Allow you to end on a positive note and presents you and your company in a positive light

Recast messages

· as a positive
· as a persuasive (to get readers to do something different ó or to help solve the problem/

Sometimes writing a negative with positive emphasis means not explaining the negative, but explaining a positive:

Weak: "No copies can be made until Thursday." (Negative news is explained)
Better: "Copies can again be made on Thursday when the new machine arrives." (Positive emphasis)
Even better: "You will be able to make copies again on Thursday when the new copier arrives." (YA and positive emphasis)

Use Humor?

CAUTION: "That's not funny!" Consider using humor to diffuse potential tension, but be careful not to exacerbate the situation.  Humor misunderstood can backfire and break goodwill: know your audience well if you are using humor. If in doubt, don't. See Chapter 9 for discussion of humor in messages.

Example (in an email from the boss with a well-known and appreciated sense of humor to a department; this is yet a second email telling employees to clean up their own dishes in the company kitchen):

Folks, once more here's a reminder to clean up your own stuff in the kitchen area. We have not had a maid here in over 20 years, and even then I never looked good in an apron. And to the person who responded to the first email by offering me some advice, all I can say is "Why, I'd have to be an acrobat to do that!"

Anything questionable here? Leave out the acrobats and stay with the apron joke if any single person in the audience might be even slightly offended. However, the audience for this message knows the writer well and found both jokes funny; they made the message more palatable while it made its point.

Determine Tone

The above message about cleaning up the kitchen involves tone, as do all messages. Remember that tone involves politics. Think of this sign, which stood behind a staff member's desk in the English Department years back:

  A lack of planning on your part
                 does not
constitute an emergency on my part.

During those years, only staff could make copies on the copy machine. One staff person (whom we'll call Jane) had long since grown tired of people asking for copies at the last minute -- say, 2 minutes before class time, interrupting her other work for yet another "emergency." Most often this was just poor planning on the part of the requester. In cases, she would point to the sign and say, "place it in the 'to copy' box, and I will get to it as soon as I can." She received both respect and lessened the number of requests for "emergency" copies.

Why did it work? Jane carried herself with positive bearing, and her bright sense of humor lightened the sign's tone--that is, lightened what otherwise might be taken as mere "gritchiness." However, her firmness in pointing to the sign brought people to understand and to respect the facts that

a) she did not have to grant last-minute requests
b) her desk was piled with other, important (as well as urgent) tasks that were not to be interrupted for someone else's lack of planning.


Ask yourself these questions regarding tone:

Answer why or why not in each case.

Sometimes tone must be firm, direct or even blunt to achieve a specific result. But remember three things about tone (especially emails and other written messages, when people cannot see your facial expressions and demeanor):

  1. Tone is easily misunderstood
  2. Tone is usually taken more negatively than it is meant
  3. Tone, when intended to be firm and blunt, must be determined with full awareness of the politics involved

When *would* a person choose to use a firm, adamant, even blunt tone? What benefits/ill effects could result?