3.3: Standard Business Style – The Indirect Pattern

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the characteristics of the indirect pattern of delivering information
  2. Recognize the differences between the direct and indirect pattern of delivering information
  3. Identify the structural elements of the indirect pattern
  4. Identify, based on context, whether a situation calls for the direct or indirect mode of delivery

Recall our discussion about organizational patterns of communication  introduced in  Chapter 3.1: Choosing an Organizational Pattern.In Chapter 3.2, we looked more closely at the direct pattern of delivering information, which gets straight to the point of your message, without any preamble or contextualization. The direct pattern works best when:

  • You already know how the reader will react;
  • You know that he/she is anxious to get the information you are sending;
  • You don’t need to be diplomatic or tactful in order to maintain the professional relationship.

Sometimes, however, you might be uncertain about how the reader will react to your message, or you might know that he/she will be upset or even angered by it. You might be required to deliver bad news or sensitive information that the reader may not want to hear but needs to know. In these cases, particularly if you are interested in maintaining a professional relationship with the reader, it is best to slow down and approach the task in a more indirect way. This week, we will focus on ways of delivering bad or unwanted news in a tactful, empathetic way that is reader-centered and as positive as possible.

Introducing the Indirect Pattern

The indirect pattern is particularly challenging because it requires that writers think deeply about what it means to create genuinely reader-centered texts. This focus on the reader is often absent from academic writing, as well as from everyday professional messages and conversations. Ordinarily, we tend to think more about what we want to say than how our reader will react (unless the reader is someone with whom we are closely acquainted, and whose feelings we want to protect). Most of the time, we don’t face serious consequences if we forget to think about our reader(s).

For example, Harvard University can get away with sending a bad news message that begins, “We regret to inform that your application has been rejected” because

  1. They aren’t interested in maintaining a relationship with applicants whom they’ve rejected, so it doesn’t really matter to them if an upset applicant decides never to apply to Harvard again.
  2. It is safe to assume that applicants are more interested in the final decision than the decision-making process.

Sometimes, however, the consequences of not taking our reader’s potential reactions into consideration can be severe. A poorly judged or insensitively written message can result unwanted consequences, including:

  • An angry response sent directly to you, or over your head to your boss or manager;
  • Tension and conflict in your workplace or professional relationships;
  • The loss of a client or customer;
  • Poor reviews and loss of reputation through word of mouth, social media, etc.

For example, unlike Harvard University, a small business owner who offers private tutoring for individuals may need to approach even his/her least favourite clients with sensitivity and tact. Can you imagine how parents/guardians might respond to a message that begins, “I regret to inform you that I am done tutoring your badly-behaved child until you teach him some discipline”? Even if the message goes on to explain very clearly why the tutor feels this way, it’s unlikely that the parents/guardians will respond in a positive way to that reasoning (assuming they read beyond that first line). Instead of solving the problem of an unruly student, the tutor may have unintentionally created more problems—some of which might go beyond the loss of a client:

  • He/he might be embroiled in angry conversations with the parents/guardians (particularly if they have paid for tutoring sessions in advance);
  • He/she might become the target of hostile messages and reviews;
  • He/she may experience a loss of reputation with the parents/guardians of other students;
  • He/she may lose income if people hear about the dispute and choose to go elsewhere for tutoring, etc.

Clearly, understanding not only how to use the indirect pattern but when to use it is of vital importance if you want to communicate confidently, professionally, and successfully in all situations.

When to Use the Indirect Pattern

The indirect pattern is the most effective way to transmit information to an audience that is

  • Unwilling or uninterested;
  • Displeased or disappointed;
  • Hostile or offended;
  • In need of persuasion.

By delaying the delivery of the bad or sensitive news and providing a positive opening that is immediately followed by reasoning and explanations, you give your reader a chance to connect with you in a positive wayunderstand your position, and begin to anticipate the bad news. In an ideal bad news scenario, the reader will anticipate and accept the bad news before you even deliver it.

Using the Indirect Pattern

When using the indirect pattern, there is important work that needs to be done before you start writing your message. Take a few moments to analyse the situation and the needs/likely response of your reader:

  • Identify your strongest and safest points
    • What common ground can you find with your reader?
    • What points can you and your reader likely agree on?
  • Identify the most inflammatory or unwelcome points
  • Identify likely questions, objections, and concerns that the reader will have
  • Organize your ideas into the four-part indirect pattern for bad news:
    • Intro & Buffer
    • Explanation
    • Bad news
    • Closing

Part 1: Intro & Buffer

A “buffer” is a person or thing that stands between other people/things in order to prevent conflict. In your indirect letter, you buffer is a neutral or pleasant statement that creates common ground or connection with your reader. However, it is important that the buffer is also relevant: don’t begin your letter by saying something inane like “I hope you are having a good day” or “Happy Monday!” (particularly since your message will likely ruin their day). Instead, you might begin with the best news, a compliment, a statement of appreciation, or a point of agreement or mutual understanding. When used effectively, a buffer

  • Lessens or delays the negative impact;
  • Makes a neutral, yet relevant and sincere statement;
  • Optional: Compliments the reader for something (without exaggerating and without using cliches);
  • Does not reveal the bad news, nor does it mislead;
  • Provides a meaningful transition to the explanation;

Part 2: The Explanation

Once you have established a connection or common ground with your reader, it is important that you take time to develop this section of your message as well. The explanation presents your reasoning before disclosing the bad news.

Again, it is important that you don’t rush this part of your message. Be sure to provide careful explanations, possible reader or third party benefits, or policy information. Edit your explanation carefully and make sure it is accurate and credible. Use positive language whenever possible. Show sincerity and fairness without resorting to apologies (which may sound insincere) or emotionally charged words like “unfortunately,” “devastating,” “with regret,” etc.

When written effectively, the explanation will help you to

  • Justify the decision;
  • Improve the chances for reader acceptance of the bad news;
  • Reduce negative feelings and mitigate potential conflict.
    • By the time your reader has read your explanation, they should anticipate the bad news so it isn’t a shock to them.

Part 3: Delivering the bad news

Once you’ve written your explanation, you still have to deliver the bad news. Be sure that there is a clear statement of the details or decision: otherwise, your reader might misunderstand your message. Take care not to create false hope or delay the bad news until another occasion; eventually, you will have to deliver the bad news and your reader may interpret your earlier communications as deceptive.

Although you want your message to be clear, there are a number of cushioning techniques you can use to soften the blow of the bad news:

  1. Splice the news with a reason, a reader benefit, or a demonstration of concern to move away from the bad news a bit:
    • E.g. We cannot refund your purchase price. We do understand your concern, but this practice allows us to offer great everyday savings to our consumers. [Note that this example creates some positivity but may have to be revised further to de-emphasize the bad news more. Examine the following recommendations carefully.]
  2. Use a subordinate clause to diminish bad news
    • E.g. Although we cannot refund your purchase price, we are sending you two coupons toward your next purchase. [Note that the bad news is in the subordinate clause. The main clause should contain better news, a reader benefit, or a demonstration of concern.]
  3. Suggest a compromise or alternative
    • Although we cannot refund your purchase price, we can give you credit for the full purchase amount to be used at a location convenient to you.
  4. Imply the bad news
    • Refunds are only granted within 14 days of purchase. We can, however, give you credit for the full purchase amount to be used at a location convenient to you. [The consumer should know by this point that his/her situation does not warrant a refund. Take care when using this approach: don’t leave room for misinterpretation.]

Be careful to express/ imply the bad news only one time. Don’t repeat it, express deep regret, allude to it again, etc. That would emphasize the bad news and upset the reader even more.

After you have cushioned the bad news in a tactful way, you might want to conclude this section of your message with additional information such as actions that the reader can take, alternative solutions to the problem, or possible opportunities for the future.

Part 4: The Closing

Once you have finished your explanation and delivered the bad news, there is one final step that must be taken. Be sure to end your message with a thoughtful, forward-looking statement. The purpose of this section is to leave your reader feeling as good as possible in the circumstances. Don’t ruin all your hard work by dwelling on/going back to the bad news – move on!

You can move on and stay focused on the positive by

  • Promoting goodwill and further relations;
  • Looking forward to future business;
  • Offering incentives to continued business;
  • Providing follow-up information for alternatives or compromises;
  • Showing appreciation and sincerity.

Don’t try to take the easy way out by saying, “Have a great day!” or something equally cheerful. As we saw in the beginning, this is both inappropriate and insincere since you have, likely, ruined their day (or at least the next few hours).

By following these steps, you can minimize negative consequences and potentially create a positive opportunity. This kind of diplomacy and reader-focused writing will make you stand out from your peers, and will enhance your reputation with employers and clients.

Key Takeaways

Also review the key takeaways from the Direct Pattern explained in Chapter 3.

  • Key IconWhen should you use the indirect pattern of delivering information?
    The best time to use the indirect pattern of delivering information is when you want your reader to understand the reasons behind your message in order to avoid tension or conflict that may be caused by the purpose of your message (which is to deliver unwanted, unexpected, or sensitive information).
  • What are the key characteristics of the indirect pattern?
    A message that uses the indirect pattern effectively will begin with a buffer that creates positive feelings but does not allude to the bad news, goes on to provide reasons and explanations for the bad news, then uses cushioning techniques to soften the blow of the bad news. The indirect pattern ends with a positive closing that looks forward and does not allude to the bad news. This creates a feeling of good will in the beginning, provides an explanation or a context for the bad/sensitive news, then ends on a positive note that focuses on the future.
  • What are the benefits of the indirect pattern?
    The most important benefits of the indirect pattern is that it prepares the reader for the information that you are about to impart. In doing so, you soften the impact of bad news, capture and maintain the reader’s attention, persuade the reader to keep reading, and explain the reasoning/expectations behind the information to promote reader acceptance.
  • What are the drawbacks of the indirect pattern?
    The successful use of the indirect pattern depends on appropriate audience analysis. If you send a message to a busy reader who is only interested in the main point, it is possible that your reader will respond in a negative way. Remember, people consider their time to be very valuable, and sending unnecessarily indirect or wordy messages that contain irrelevant information can demonstrate a lack of respect for your reader’s time. Readers who feels that you are wasting their time are unlikely to continue to read your message. At best, they might skim through it; the danger is that they could miss the main point of your message entirely!


Discussion Activity


Please read through the following scenario. Once you are familiar with the situation, create your own post/discussion response by answering the following questions:

  • What are your strongest and safest points?
  • What are the most inflammatory or unwelcome points?
  • What questions, objections, and concerns will the reader likely have?
  • How could you organize these points into the four-part indirect pattern for bad news?

Imagine that you are a full-time college student who tutors high school students to help pay for your tuition. One of your students has refused to do his homework for the past month and is rude and disruptive while you work with him/her. In addition to being incredibly frustrated, you feel that you are wasting time that could be better spent working with a student who genuinely wants your help.

Write an outline for a letter to the student’s parents or guardians, who have paid for 3 months of tutoring in advance, telling them that you no longer wish to work with their child*. Be sure to follow the indirect pattern: these parents/guardians are extremely sensitive when it comes to their child, whom they feel has been misjudged and mistreated by teachers in the past. Further, they have gotten to know the parents of other students, so you don’t want them turning other parents against you!

* Feel free to use your imagination to fill in the blanks (e.g. student’s name, age, and gender; parents/guardians’ names and situation; your past relationship with them; etc.).


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Advanced Professional Communication Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ashman; Arley Cruthers; eCampusOntario; Ontario Business Faculty; and University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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