When should you delay stating your bottom line message?

Photo Credit: flatKat via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: flatKat via Compfight cc

Rarely. That’s how often you should delay when writing to readers from Western cultures. Our attention span is short. We value efficiency. We want to know your bottom line first. Then we’ll decide whether to keep reading. (I’m assuming your goal is to communicate a point clearly to your audience.) But telling you it’s rarely a good idea to delay is not terribly helpful. Neither is saying only that you should delay when your audience is highly sensitive to your message. So I’ll try to provide better guidance in this post.

Sensitivity is the key to placement of the bottom line. But we need to think about sensitivity in some detail. It helps to tease apart several components of sensitivity. (If you’re not sure how to identify the bottom line in a written message, you may want to view The Video Tutorial on Bottom Line Placement before reading on. Or check out books on business writing from Ron Dulek and Jack Fielden.)

Positive vs. Negative Messages

The first component of sensitivity is obvious. Is the bottom line negative? Consider the meeting announcement below.

University Colleagues:

The Business Communication Roundtable will meet at noon on the first Friday of every month, beginning September 6. We’re especially interested in reaching out across the University and into our community.

Bring a business communication challenge and your lunch to Bidgood Room 15. Is your challenge writing a business plan? Creating web content? Planning an elevator pitch? Communicating performance feedback? Getting people to respond to your email? Or something else? Any topic related to communication in the workplace is appropriate. Everyone with a challenge is welcome whether you are a business person, faculty member, staff member, or student.The group will share resources — and laughs.

This document conveys the bottom line: “The Business Communication Roundtable will meet at noon . . .” That bottom line communicates not negative but neutral news to its readers. (Sidebar: We are going to attempt generalizable guidance; there are always idiosyncratic situations we can think up that violate our general principles.)  When the news is not negative, there is no excuse for delaying where/when the bottom line appears within the document. It should appear, as it does in the meeting announcement above, at the very beginning. That will satisfy the efficiency needs of Western readers.

Now consider the program announcement below.

TO: College Faculty and Staff
FROM: Senior Associate Dean
SUBJECT: Business Leadership Academy

The Business Leadership Academy has been run at a deficit since its inception.  Last year the loss was approximately $55,000, which was less than many previous years. To make this endeavor self sustaining would require a significant increase in fees to the attendees.  We were concerned that such a large increase in fees would reduce enrollment, resulting in even more deficits. [Administrative Finance Person] and I discussed this at length with [Faculty Leader Person] as well as alternatives to prevent further deficits.  We mutually agreed that none of these would preclude deficits.

I decided that, while this program has been a great success, it did not seem prudent in a financial sense to continue this program.

The program announcement conveys the bottom line: “it did not seem prudent . . . to continue this program.” That’s negative news. The emotional response to negative news involves a process of moving from shock/surprise to acceptance. And that means it might be advisable to delay. But we have to consider more components of sensitivity to make the best choice.

Reader vs. Writer Sensitivity in Negative Messages

The second component we need to recognize is the locus of sensitivity about the negative news. Is the message negatively affecting the reader? Consider the apology email below.

TO: Volunteer Editors
FROM: Director of Editorial Operations
SUBJECT: Journal Schedules

I am writing to you to give you an update on the status of our journal schedules for this year’s issues. Some of you may have already been contacted individually by your staff editor regarding our ability to meet scheduled mail dates this year. Our analysis of our performance to date is disappointing at 8% of all issues mailing either on or before their scheduled date through September. This is compared with our 20% target established for this year. The majority of these delays (approx. 64%) were internal to our Operations Center, while 27% of the delays resulted from receiving material late from the Volunteer Editors. The internal delays are a result of three major challenges we’ve faced this year.

[lengthy description of the three challenges is omitted to save space]

I would like to express my apology for the internal delays and to assure you of our commitment to resolve our performance issues.

In this email, the bottom line message is “I would like to express my apology . . .” Note that it is the writer — not the reader — who is most negatively affected by that message.  Apologizing can be uncomfortable to both the person offering and the person receiving the apology. But it is MOST uncomfortable for the person doing the apologizing.

So what about delaying the bottom line message?  There’s no excuse for decreasing efficiency by delaying just because you, as the writer, are uncomfortable with your message. That means the writer of the apology email should not have delayed.  Instead, that bottom line apology should have been stated in the first sentence or so.  (As well as signaled in the SUBJECT line.)

Compare that apology email to the program announcement from above. The bottom line message, “it did not seem prudent . . . to continue this program,” is negative primarily for the readers. While the writer may have been uncomfortable making the announcement, the readers who are hearing the news are most affected because someone discontinued a program they care about. The emotional response to negative news is a process of moving from shock/surprise to acceptance. Again, it might be advisable to give readers a chance to move toward acceptance by delaying in the program announcement. But we have to consider more components of sensitivity to make the best choice.

Personal & Rare vs. Impersonal & Common Negative Messages

The final components of sensitivity relate to how personal and how rare a bottom line message is. Basically, impersonal and common messages are more likely to be perceived as neutral. In contrast, personal and rare messages are more likely to be perceived as negative (or positive). Consider the rejection email below.

Hi, [Student’s First Name].

I enjoyed meeting you last week. You certainly demonstrated skills that will be relevant to my work with First Tee of Tuscaloosa. Your out-going personality and  interest in PR are valuable assets in doing this type of community outreach project.
Amazingly, another faculty scholar applicant has experience both identifying funding sources and writing grant proposals for non-profits. Because his experience is such a close match with my immediate needs, I have offered him the position.
I regret I cannot offer you a position as well. But the person I have hired will graduate next May so, if you’re still interested in a position for 2014-15, I hope we can talk again. I see a very bright future for you.
Wishing you great success,
Dr. Kim

The bottom line message is definitely a negative one: “I regret I cannot offer you a position . . .” While I, as the writer, was not happy to convey that message, the reader is more sensitive to it than I am.  Most important to this post, the bottom line of the rejection email is both personal and rare for the reader. That means its bottom line is highly negative, and the reader is likely to be highly sensitive to it. As a writer, I signaled my awareness of this level of reader sensitivity by delaying my bottom line message within the document. I judged that the reader’s sensitivity to my bottom line was greater than her desire for efficiency.

Once more, let’s consider the program announcement email. It is neither personal to nor rare for the readers to hear about a program change. (The document notes that the personally affected reader was involved in the decision.) That means its bottom line is somewhat but not highly negative. That level of reader sensitivity does not ordinarily warrant a delay.

When Should You Delay?

The visual below summarizes the guidance I’ve illustrated with examples above. You should delay stating your bottom line if it meets all the following criteria for sensitivity:

  • communicates negative news (like the program announcement and rejection but not the meeting announcement)
  • focuses that negativity primarily on the reader (like the program announcement and rejection but not the apology)
  • conveys negative news that is both personal to the reader and rare (like the rejection but not like the program announcement)

You can predict that, of the examples provided above, only the rejection email is highly sensitive (like sentence #5 in the visual). It’s the only example in which you should definitely delay stating the bottom line message.

Audience Sensitivity

For the program announcement then, readers from Western cultures are likely to prefer efficiency.  You shouldn’t delay unless you know your reader well enough to know he or she expects greater sensitivity than the average Western reader. FWIW: There is some evidence that, as a group, Western women take longer to accept bad news than Western men. Most of the relevant research on sensitivity to messages takes place in health care settings.

Here’s the program announcement, with the bottom line message highlighted below to show its location near the beginning of the document.

TO: College Faculty and Staff
FROM: Senior Associate Dean
SUBJECT: Business Leadership Academy

The Business Leadership Academy has been run at a deficit since its inception.  Last year the loss was approximately $55,000, which was less than many previous years. I decided that, while this program has been a great success, it did not seem prudent in a financial sense to continue this program.

To make this endeavor self sustaining would require a significant increase in fees to the attendees.  We were concerned that such a large increase in fees would reduce enrollment, resulting in even more deficits. [Administrative Finance Person] and I discussed this at length with [Faculty Leader Person] as well as alternatives to prevent further deficits.  We mutually agreed that none of these would preclude deficits.

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