Skirting the issue does more harm than good

The news you need to share might make people feel uncomfortable or upset. And you don’t want to be the person behind that. You’re not alone – it’s something called the M.U.M effect, or Minimising Unpleasant Messages.

The theory goes that people are ‘reluctant to communicate undesirable information to others, because they fear the psychological discomfort and potential damage to their public image’ (Bond & Anderson, 1987; Larson, 1986; Lee, 1993).

But when it comes to difficult messages, it pays to Say It Straight.

Three ways to say it straight, or S.I.S

1. Say it upfront: put your main point in the first line

The first thing we’re guilty of is burying our point. Price increases, job cuts, changes in working models. We tend to kick off writing about how much our reader means to us. How they’re the backbone of our business. Long-winded attempts at justifying what’s about to come. Then once we think we’ve sweetened them up, we drop the news.

Sometimes it’s so badly segued, that the ‘fear’ from the M.U.M effect is blatant. Your reader will appreciate you getting to the point.

2. Say it how it is: ditch any ambiguity

One way to get your message across loud and clear is by being specific. You don’t want anything getting lost in translation, so say exactly what you mean. If your employees need to be in the office 3 days a week, tell them that.

Don’t say: ‘our new hybrid model lets you work from home and the office’.

Say: ‘our new hybrid model breaks up your week with 3 days at the office and 2 days working from home. You can choose which days you work where’.

Vague messages lead to more questions: how is the week split? Which days do I work where?

So wherever you can, be specific and avoid the back and forth.

3. Say it how you would in person: it’s no time for formalities

Formal language feels distant and cold. And can be confusing to a lot of people. The last thing you want is to sound like you don’t care, or waste people’s time by having them read over your message again and again.

Use everyday words like ‘make sure’ instead of ‘ensure’, and ‘need’ instead of ‘require’. Say you’re sorry if you need to. And stick to the active voice to tell people exactly who is involved with what.

Say: ‘I’m sorry we won’t be able to share a bonus this year, or do as much as we’d like to with pay as we’ve made a loss’.

Not: ‘annual bonuses have been reviewed and it is with regret that employees will not receive a bonus due to a red bottom line’.

The best way to write is to slip into your reader’s shoes

Just think, if you were getting the difficult news, how would you want it broken to you? By M.U.M, or S.I.S?

Want more tips on breaking bad news? Watch our webinar: Delivering difficult comms.