How to write boldly when you are afraid

bad newsWhen you’re afraid of how people will react, you distance yourself from what you write. This makes your writing weak, which makes you seem weak.

Fearful writers use language to evade blame. They:

  • Bury the lead. Flounder around before getting to the point.
  • Use passive voice. When you say “mistakes were made” you conceal who’s responsible.
  • Use weasel words. “Some customers are very upset” doesn’t sound as bad as “35% of customers have asked for their money back.”
  • End weakly. A piece of writing should tell us what to do next. The fearful writer slinks off the stage instead.

Deliver bad news boldly, and at least your readers will perceive you as honest. Deliver it weakly and even if you feel better for a moment, you’ll infuriate your readers.

Here’s a hypothetical email in which the writer attempts to evade his own message. I’ve highlighted the ineffective floundering, passive voice, and weasel words in red.

From: Ted Jones, service manager
To: Sales and Service Committee
Re: Analysis of service situation

As you know, I make a monthly review of the state of our service. I’ll refer you to past reviews that have always shown excellent results. Our service personnel are generally considered the highest rated region across the company.

In my detailed analysis of service for the last quarter, I found that things remained generally quite good. Unfortunately, among the positive results, there is one negative. One machine was unrepaired, and the customer went ahead and used it anyway. Regrettably, considerable damage was caused at the customers site. If you are wondering who the customer was, it’s Randco. We did everything possible to retain the customer, but retention may not be possible. I am hopeful that this will not end up causing legal issues, but there is the possibility of getting sued for the damage.

Please keep in mind our excellent service reputation with the other customers. I hope to be able to maintain those relationships. A review has also been undertaken to determine the cause of this issue, and to prevent a repeat of the problem.

I appreciate your attention in this matter and wish you a good end of quarter.

At this point, the recipients of this message are steaming mad because they had to work so hard to figure out what is actually happening. If you plant daisies around a pile of poo, it still stinks. Why not just point out the poo so we know not to step in it?

Ted was going to catch it anyway, so he might as well be honest, specific, and brief, like this:

From: Ted Jones, service manager
To: Sales and Service Committee
Re: Randco service problem and consequences

There is a problem with Randco, one of our biggest customers. On a service call, one of our techs failed to repair one of their machines. The customer was unaware of the problem and used the machine, causing several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage.

We have taken the following actions:

  • Dispatched a senior salesperson to attempt to retain Randco as a client.
  • Alerted legal to the possibility of a lawsuit for the damage.
  • Reviewed the tech’s service record, which was spotless except for this problem. As a result, I have issued a warning but did not discipline the tech further.
  • Reviewed our processes. Based on that review, this is not part of a pattern. Our current processes should prevent it from recurring. This is consistent with our 98% quality rating in past quarters.

If you interact with Randco, be aware of the incident. Sales staff can continue to be confident about our overall service quality.

If you have any further questions, please let me know.

Now Ted looks like somebody who’s taken charge of the situation. The reader doesn’t have to dig to find out what the problem is or what should happen next — there are no pointless daisies concealing it.

You can’t hide from trouble. If you have to communicate it, gird your loins and tell the truth boldly and fairly. Your audience will respect you for it. And if you get fired, at least it won’t be for bad writing.

Photo: Stuart Anthony via Flickr

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Great post.

    I would like to know what are your thoughts about individuals / corporations who purposefully use vague writing as P.R. strategies to avoid direct legal liability. The “we heard you” type, but never specific. As a reader, you know something happened, but it would take detective work to know what really happened.