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  • Writer's pictureChristy Murdock

How to deliver bad news (without sounding like an asshole)

I was recently invited to an online mastermind, of sorts, designed for content creators and marketers. I didn't spend much time there, although I occasionally dipped in to see the conversations around professional development, client service, and other topics of interest.

A few weeks ago, the head of the organization put out an urgent call for content writers. More than 700 people threw their hats into the ring for the 20 or so openings available.


Keep in mind, ChatGPT and other AI platforms have wrought havoc among content writers across many industries. Many of the folks on that platform, in fact, were regularly sharing their fears about no longer being able to make a living as content creators and copywriters. Many had seen their monthly billing go down to zero as their pool of leads and clients dried up.


Yesterday at 5 p.m., the head of this group sent out an email to let the 700 or so professional writers know that the slots had been filled for those 20 jobs. In doing so, he not only disappointed people. He caused a lot of pain through the way that he delivered the news.


Adding insult to injury


The main issue was that there were far too many applicants for the few slots available, end stop. That's really all that needed to be said.


Instead, the email listed a number of reasons why people did not receive job offers, including the fact that some people had errors in their submissions while others submitted a portfolio instead of the two or three samples requested.


But of all of the reasons given for rejecting applications, the worst was the very first one:

"Writing [was] okay but not great. For this role, we need excellent writing."

Imagine telling people who are afraid that they're going to lose their livelihoods that they're only okay. Telling people who are undergoing a massive disruption to their entire industry that they're the problem.


What an asshole.


The blowback was swift and severe. Know how I know? Because an hour later he sent out an apology for his insensitivity.


So what went wrong?


There are a number of things that made this communication so messy.

  1. It came at 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon. This is an old HR ploy to keep people from reacting after bad news has been delivered. For example, layoffs are often announced at 5 p.m. on Fridays and just before a long holiday weekend so that people have time to "cool off."

  2. It said too much. Again, all that needed to be said was that there was an overwhelming response and the 20 positions had been filled.

  3. It provided reasons that didn't apply to everyone. Out of 700 professional writers, my guess is that only a small percentage had errors or failed to follow directions, yet the email made it sound like practically everyone had these issues.

But above and beyond these issues, the number one problem?


The writer forgot that he was talking to people.


Out of the 700 people who received that email, I can guarantee you that

  • Someone lost a loved one this week.

  • Someone is going through a divorce.

  • Someone has been diagnosed with an illness.

  • Someone can no longer pay their bills.

  • Someone is suffering from depression and anxiety.

  • Someone was already feeling hopeless even before receiving that ill-conceived email.

The real people who received those emails have real problems and real feelings. They were applying for those jobs with real hope and real needs.


We're living in a time of great complexity and our communication should take that into account. When you have a big audience, you also have plenty of ways to put your foot in your mouth.


One of the things people love to say is, "Everyone's just so sensitive now." Well, yes. They are. So, whether you like that or not, you need to be smart with your communication.


Whether you're writing an email or a social media post or making a video, you need to remember that there are lots of different people who will be consuming the content you create. Going out of your way to insult them or demean them will not do anything to make you or your business look better.


How can you check your communication for tone?


One of my favorite writerly tricks for getting tone right comes from Edgar Allen Poe. The master of horror and suspense, Poe would start his writing process by asking himself this question:

What do I want the reader to feel at the end of the story?

From there, he would reverse-engineer the story so that everything would lead the reader naturally to that end goal.


How do you want your leads to feel? Your current or past clients? Your employees and colleagues?

  • Safe

  • Secure

  • Cared for

  • Empowered

  • Confident

  • Understood

  • Heard

  • Hopeful

  • Excited

  • Enthusiastic

There are so many other words you could add to that list, but that gives you an idea of the various types of end-goals you can approach your writing and marketing with.


Even if you're delivering bad news, you can do it in a way that still makes people feel okay. Think about the difference between these two emails.


Email No. 1

Hi [NAME],

Just wanted to let you know that the sellers rejected your offer. They're going with an all-cash offer that proposed an accelerated closing schedule. Let me know if you want to set up some showings for next weekend and we'll start over.

-- [AGENT NAME]


Now, if I got that email from my agent, I think I'd be ready to give up and renew my lease for another year. But what if instead, it sounded like this:


Email No. 2

Hi [NAME],

I just got off the phone with the listing agent for [ADDRESS]. They've decided to go with another buyer. I know that you're disappointed, but I wanted to let you know about our conversation.


First, the successful buyer was offering all cash. While we're not in a position to make that offer on your behalf, there are some mortgage providers that offer fully underwritten pre-approvals. By doing that, the approval process is more or less guaranteed and it makes you far more competitive against cash buyers. If you're willing to try this, I've got a great lender in mind who can provide this service for you.


Second, I wanted to let you know that there's a home in that same neighborhood that will be coming onto the market this week. I've already been in touch with the listing agent and we can get you in there to look at it as early as Thursday. If that works, let's set up a time and get started.


I know this feels like a setback, but I am confident that we're going to find the right home for you and make your goals a reality. Don't hesitate to reach out if you have questions.


Thanks,

[AGENT NAME]


Not gonna lie, that second email is going to take you a few more minutes to write and may require you to spend a little time talking things through with the listing agent and the lender. But what a difference those few minutes will make in the way that the client feels afterward.


When we talk about the importance of communication, it's not just about whether or not you communicate. It's about how you communicate and the thought you put into the communication you provide.


Your clients and the people you work with deserve your best. They shouldn't have to earn your kindness and respect. They're entitled to it.


Take a few extra minutes to communicate in a way that makes you and the recipient feel good. Life is tough enough. Let's be a little softer with each other.

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