How to Organize a Paper: The Indirect Method (for Writing Bad News)

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What Is the Indirect Method for Communicating Bad News?

The Indirect Method is an organizational strategy that prepares readers for news or information that they will likely be unhappy about. Following a simple, four-step structure, you can rhetorically position bad news in such a way that, while your reader will probably still not like the bad news you’re giving to them, they will be less likely to be mad at you personally for the bad news.

The four steps of the Indirect Method include the following:

  1. Buffer
  2. Reasons
  3. Bad News
  4. Closing

When Do I Use the Indirect Method?

The Indirect Method is especially useful for writing messages in the following circumstances:

  • The bad news is likely to be personally upsetting (like in a layoff notice);
  • The bad news will likely provoke a hostile reaction (like when someone is being told they cannot participate in something they expected to);
  • The bad news is based on a controversial decision;
  • The bad news will seriously threaten a relationship; or
  • The bad news is unexpected.

When communicating bad news that doesn’t fall under one of the five circumstances above, consider using a more direct method. Circumstances where bad news should not follow the Indirect Method include the following:

  • The bad news is an emergency or the information is critically important (if people or something else is in danger, get straight to the point);
  • The bad news is expected (like when a person is being told they didn’t get a job for which there was a great deal of competition);
  • The situation is either very common or the seriousness of the situation is low (like when cancelling a company picnic); or
  • The recipient would prefer to just hear the bad news quickly (like when you are admitting to them that you made a mistake).

See the graphic below for a comparison of when to use the direct method vs. the indirect method:

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How Does the InDirect Method Work?

Following the four basic steps listed above (and inserting a fifth, apology if necessary), use these guidelines for writing each section, in the following order:

Use a buffer. Put any good news or, at least, the best news possible right up front. Send a positive message, when possible, to start. Also, consider doing the following:

  • give compliments when appropriate;
  • show appreciation for the person or group of people;
  • make statements that you think both you and they will agree upon;
  • provide facts (which will make your news seem more reasonable);
  • show understanding and empathy.

Apologize (if necessary). Apologize if a serious error has occurred, but only if the problem is, truly, an error. Don’t apologize for things that are beyond the control of a single person or department (like economic downturns or product failures). While apologies for errors can significantly help repair a damaged relationship, apologies in advance of bad news where no real blame is warranted can minimize the effectiveness of introducing bad news—in fact, it can make the bad news seem worse.

Give reasons. People want to know why bad news happens. When there are budget cuts, layoffs, product recalls, required overtime, etc., people want rational explanations as to the reasoning behind it. Cite benefits first, if there are any, and then provide company policies and new or developing laws. When giving reasons, use positive words, and be sure to explain how you are being fair to all within the company or situation.

Cushion bad news. Position the bad news within paragraphs that are surrounded by sentences with other positive comments or explanations. The goal isn’t to hide the information, but to make it seem less of an emphasis. Consider using passive voice, highlight the positive, imply refusals if possible, and suggest a compromise or alternative solution for the person receiving the news.

Close pleasantly. Avoid leaving a bad news message on a sour note. Be polite, wish people well, provide positive outlooks, and/or offer freebies or incentives when possible.