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How to Say No in Business Communication [Top Technique]


We often have to say no and deliver bad news in business writing. Striking the right tone can be tricky. We need to be firm and we shouldn't apologize for a good business decision. However, we also don't want to alienate our readers. 

Every business writer needs to deliver bad news to a reader at some point, but this skill is especially important in sales writing and customer support writing.

This article will focus on the most effective foundational technique to deliver bad news or say no.

When you have to say no to a client or colleague or deliver news that your audience perceives as negative, always aim to shift the focus off of you as a decision-maker and keep the focus on the facts. Another way of thinking of this is to remember that you want to say no to the facts, not frame your choice. Instead, keep the focus of the information firmly on the facts or situation. 


x-circleFramed on your decision: Unfortunately, I am unable to approve your request for vacation for the first two weeks of August. Three team members have already scheduled their vacations then, and I have to ensure a fully staffed team.

check-circleFramed on the facts: The first two weeks of August aren't open for more vacation requests. Three team members have already scheduled their vacation those weeks.


Let's look at two examples when a long-time customer wants to break a contract to work with a competitor:

  • Omni has contracted with Zorin Industries to provide shipping services, but Omni has let Zorin Industries know that they don't intend to renew their contract for next year.
  • However, a contract exists, and Omni missed the annual notification date to break the contract for the next year.
  • Zorin Industries, fairly, has to explain that the contract cannot be broken now, and Omni is obligated to work with them the following year.

EXAMPLE THAT IS FRAMED AROUND CHOICE. THIS IS MORE OFFENSIVE TO A READER.

Notice how this is framed around Zorin Industries' choice and intention to hold them to the contract. Tonally, it feels punitive and heavy-handed and will likely result in a strong negative response from Omni.

Hi Joanne,

I am following up on my voice message to you this morning regarding Omni's plan to discontinue Zorin Industry's shipping service in 2021-22.

Please review the attached shipping contract that was signed by Omni's CEO Mary Ann Spijaric on February 13, 2018.

This contract renews every year unless a written notice was received sixty days in advance of the renewal date (page 2 – paragraph 11).

Since a written notice was not received prior to the renewal date, Zorin Industry will be holding Omni to this contract.

Please call me to discuss.

Best regards,

David Daniels
VP of Sales
Zorin Industries


EXAMPLE FRAMED AROUND THE FACTS ONLY. THIS IS LESS OFFENSIVE TO A READER.

Notice how this is framed entirely around the facts only. Tonally, it's less confronting — but still clear and firm — because the impression of Zorin Industries' choice to hold Omni to the contract is not highlighted. 

Hi Joanne,

I am following up on my voice message to you this morning. Please review the attached shipping contract that was signed by CEO Mary Ann Spijaric on February 13, 2018.

This contract renews every year unless a written notice was received sixty days in advance of the renewal date (page 2, paragraph 11). Your renewal date was February 13, 2021. By the terms of our contract, it cannot be canceled at this late date.  

Please know that I very much want to resolve any issues that made you want to change your shipping service. I'm here to help if you have any questions. 

Best regards,

David Daniels
VP of Sales
Zorin Industries


Remember, set the right foundation when you have to say no or deliver bad news. Keep the focus on the facts and off your decision to say no as much as possible. 

With this foundation in place, we can then overlay other techniques and tonal strategies to soften a denial, but it's critical to set this foundation. 

There are several additional skilled strategies to say no or deliver bad news. (We address more strategies in our business writing courses.):

  • Direct and indirect buffering techniques work well.
  • Also, avoid negative qualifiers such as regrettably, however, and unfortunately before stating the denial because they visually scream "no!" to a scanning reader. 

The first, and most important, step in saying no skillfully is to the keep the focus only on the facts.

Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.

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