Volumes have been written about when not to write. If you have something difficult to say, it’s best to say it in person, or so the advisors will tell you. Email (that’s how most business writing occurs today) is certainly not an ideal medium for tough conversations; it can be cold and impersonal. If you have a good relationship with someone, you want to temper your difficult conversation with personal signals; empathy is easier to express in person. But there are times when writing is the best medium.
One of these times is when the news may take some getting used to. A customer complaint, for example, can be a nasty surprise if delivered in person by your manager. Not only are you hit with the bad news that you failed to meet expectations, but you may also be struggling with your embarrassment, anger, or shock (sometimes all three at once.) It’s much easier if your manager delivers the essence of the complaint in writing.
You have time to react angrily if you need to; you can stomp around your office and relieve your feelings in private. Then you compose yourself to meet with your manager. You also have the facts of the matter at hand, so you can refer to them as you try to piece together what happened; it’s hard to listen to details when you’re hearing disturbing news for the first time.
Another time that writing works better than a conversation is when the message is complex. If corrective action is needed, I’d rather have it clearly outlined in a document than delivered in person. As a manager, I want to take the time to outline steps and put them in the order that makes the most sense. Directions given in writing ensure that both parties have a clear plan of action and help eliminate guesses or differences in interpretation if something goes wrong.
Delivering difficult messages in writing also gives you time to re-read and make sure you’re being neutral in your language. Changing “You didn’t get me the plans” to “I still have not received the plans” may sound like a small semantic edit, but the neutral language is much less likely to inflame the recipient (even if she’s actually at fault.) That can get you to a more productive outcome down the road.
Written communication also allows you to end on the note you choose. In person meetings are harder to manage; they may ramble on for a while or end awkwardly. In writing, you can choose to get tougher at the end if needed: “As soon as you have taken these steps, we can consider reinstating your account. If you fail to take action, we will be forced to close the account permanently.” Or, you can end on a more encouraging note: “David, these are difficult times for the company. We appreciate your understanding as we make changes to our polices.”
In any case, short and direct sentences are better sentences. Break complex thoughts into separate sentences (see the message to David above.) The pause after “difficult times for the company” gives the thought the emphasis you intend. It makes the reader pause for a moment to consider the thought before moving on to the next thought. Clear and short sentences will help your reader connect with both the facts and the emotion of your message.