How to give bad news

This tweet made me laugh.

As well as being funny, it’s also illustrative of a common pitfall: trying to find a benefit where no benefit exists.

Consultants like me are partly to blame for this kind of thing. I constantly hammer how important it is to have benefit-driven content. You’ve got to tell people what’s in it for them, because otherwise why would they engage with you?

But this advice falls apart when you have bad news.

You can highlight benefits, but you can’t invent them

Sometimes you have to accept reality : there is no benefit. And if there’s no benefit, you’re much better off owning this fact rather than using a bunch of words to try and invent one. Your customers are smarter than that.

Price hike communications are a great example of this. If I’m paying $8 per month for Netflix, and then it goes up to $10, I’m still getting the same Netflix. I’m just paying another $2 for it. There’s absolutely no benefit there for me as a consumer. If Netflix tries to invent one, it just comes across as disingenuous.

An example

Here’s another example. NZ Post are raising their prices. Here’s how they described that move on their website:

Postal rate changes will contribute to protecting mail as a valued service for all New Zealanders

We’re making some changes to our products and services so we can continue to provide New Zealand with a viable and future fit mail delivery service.

NZ Post delivers over 400 million mail items a year, but the number of letters sent continues to drop at a significant rate. We’re working hard to keep the cost of posting mail as low as possible, by significantly reducing our network costs and making big changes to how we operate. However, with an annual decline of approximately 60 million mail items through our network, we also need to increase the price of postage.

These changes will come into effect on 1 July this year.

Please take a look at the information below which outlines the upcoming changes and where to get more information or help with any questions. . .

But I expect most people reading this page want to know two things: when this is happening, and what exactly is changing. That’s the information they need to make decisions about how they’re going to use NZ Post in the future. If the price is increasing by 1% in 10 years, they’re going to make a different set of decisions than if the price is increasing by 10,000% tomorrow.

To find out when the price is going up, you have to wade through three paragraphs. To find out how much it’s going up by, you have to click through to another page - which shows you the new prices, but doesn’t compare them to the current ones.

How to do better

But let’s not be too mean to NZ Post. They’re (quite rightly) communicating this information in a whole bunch of different channels. Here’s how they communicated their price hike in a print notice. Take a look at how straightforward it is, compared the their media release:


When you’re telling people information that doesn’t have a clear benefit, it’s best to give it to them straight. Tell them what’s happening, how it affects them, and when it will happen. That’s it! The shorter the better.

The print notification is a textbook example of this approach. After a quick glance, you can see that prices are going up by a 10-30 cents, depending on what you’re sending, and it’s not happening ‘till July of this year. So if you’re sending a whole bunch of letters this year, you’d be better off doing so in June. And if you only send a few letters a year, this change is not really going to affect you that much.

So if you’ve got some bad news, take a leaf out of NZ Posts’s print book. Avoid the temptation to explain yourself over and over again, and instead just give the people the facts. Some people will accept it, and some people won’t, but no amount of explanation is going to make people happy about spending more money for the same thing. So just rip that band-aid off and focus on making your customers happy in other ways.

Photo by Lucas Gruwez on Unsplash