Throughout a normal day, you write to or talk with many people about many different situations. You can usually rely on your intuition to guide you in how to approach each situation, but a knowledge of different tactics can give you added confidence as you select the best approach.
When deciding on the approach to take in your creating messages, you have two general options—direct or indirect. In other words, you can either get right to the point at the beginning of your message, or you can delay the main point until later in the message. Review the following guidelines to help decide which option to follow.
Use the direct approach for good-news or routine messages. For instance, if your sales team has met its goals for the current year, give them the good news in the opening sentence: “Good news—we have just met our sales goals for the year, and we still have over two months still left to go!” Or if you need to call a routine meeting with your sales staff, give them the main point of the message, followed by appropriate details:
“We will be holding a one-hour staff meeting next Wednesday at 9 a.m. in the west conference room. The purpose of the meeting is to review progress on all current development projects and to establish goals for the next quarter. Therefore, please come prepared to. . . .”
Compare the foregoing direct approach with this one, which uses an indirect approach. I think you’ll see that the direct approach is much better.
“Each quarter we find it beneficial to review progress on all current development projects and to establish goals for the subsequent quarter. The time for our second-quarter review has arrived; therefore, please plan to attend a meeting next Wednesday at 9 a.m. in the west conference room.”
Placing the main idea at, or near, the beginning gives meaning and purpose to everything that follows. Delaying the main idea leaves the message receiver wondering where the message is going.
Unless you have another pressing reason for using an indirect approach, use the direct approach—when there’s good news to share, when you have relatively routine information to transmit, or when you have important information that you don’t want your readers to miss. Direct should be your go-to approach in the majority of situations.
Use an indirect approach for situations when you need to first prepare your audience for the main point of your message. For instance, if you are writing to an outside consulting group to terminate their service, first explain the reasons for the termination, and then announce the termination.
"We have appreciated your efforts during the last six months to help us improve the quality of our customer service. During this time we have closely monitored our online customer reviews. We have found that, in spite of the new procedures, our ratings have not improved. As a result of this continuing problem, we have decided to pursue an alternate approach and to use the services of a different consulting group, effective July 1. We regret having to make this change, but our customer-service problem is a top priority that needs a solution."
In another situation, if you need to persuade a subordinate to accept a management assignment that would require her to move to Denver, you might approach it this way:
“We’ve been experiencing sagging sales in our Denver region. The downward trend began two years ago, and each quarter since then has continued this negative pattern. We are now down 18 percent from where we were two years ago. We need someone from the home office to move to Denver for the next couple of years and manage operations there so we can get things moving in a positive direction. We would like you to be that person.”
Placing the main idea first would result in the following:
“We want you to move to Denver and manage that region for the next couple of years. We’ve been experiencing sagging sales in our Denver region. The downward trend began two years ago, and each quarter since then has continued this negative pattern. We are now down 18 percent from where we were two years ago. We need someone from the home office to move to Denver for the next couple of years and manage operations there so we can get things moving in a positive direction.”
Placing the key point of the message in the first sentence would obviously be a major shock to the receiver. A few sentences are needed to prepare the reader for the main point in the message.
In summary, whether you have to give bad news in a written message, or in a face-to-face setting, use the indirect approach—facts first, bad news afterward. This approach is most appropriate for giving significant bad news (the direct approach may be acceptable for minor bad news) and for persuasive situations when the receiver needs to be convinced.
One final note—these guidelines are most appropriate for most audiences in the western hemisphere. Asian audiences, in contrast, are generally more indirect in their communication practices. Therefore, be sure to analyze your audience (see the PACS planning model in a previous blog) before deciding on a final strategy.
Communication is the means by which managers manage. As a result, communication is the most vital management skill. Put the guidelines of this blog to practice in your own communication, and you’ll find yourself writing and speaking with greater confidence and power.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider reviewing our business communication textbook.