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DIRECT AND INDIRECT APPROACHES

In writing letters, memos, and e-mail messages (the focus of Chapter 2), one issue that you'll need to consider is whether your message is one that is likely to be well-received or one that may encounter resistance or ill-will--a "bad news" message of some type.  Searles spends a good bit of time in Chapter 1 discussing tone and making sure to use a reader-centered perspective that utilizes a "you" approach and positive wording.  In addition to a reader-centered perspective, however, you also should consider the difference between what is called a direct and an indirect approach when organizing letters, memos, and e-mail messages, especially ones that convey bad news.


DIRECT APPROACH

The direct approach anticipates no resistance to its message--for instance, "you've been hired," "your order is being shipped today," or even "the project will be done in one week."

In this case, organizing your message is simple.  Searles mentions that memos and letters should have some kind of brief introduction, sometimes as its own paragraph.  If you're using the direct approach, this introduction is simply a straightforward statement of the main point of the message.  For instance, if you are writing a letter to confirm an order, simply begin by stating, "We have received your order for part #23-B-4439 and are shipping it today."  Then the rest of the letter can provide details like shipping time, cost, etc.

Whenever possible, use the direct approach.  Most readers are in a hurry and want the main point up front.  And if there's no reason for them to respond negatively, there's no reason to delay that main point.

Keep in mind that the direct approach applies equally to letters, memos, and e-mail messages.


INDIRECT APPROACH

Sometimes, your letter, memo, or e-mail message contains "bad news" of some type--a rejection of a request for funding, a report that a project won't be completed on time, a notice that an order hasn't been shipped yet.  In that case, you may need to adopt an indirect approach, one that strategically delays the bad news until your reader has been prepared to accept or deal with it in a positive way.

In this instance, organizing your message can be a bit more complicated and call for a bit more strategy.  Think of situations in which you've had to communicate bad news orally--that someone has broken his or her arm at work, for instance.  You generally don't go to that person's family and simply blurt out that their loved one has been hurt.  You usually begin with something to soften the bad news a bit.  For example, you might begin by assuring them that their loved one is okay or is being taken care of.  Then you might go on to explain the injury and what has been done and so forth.  That bit of reassurance in this case is called the buffer--material designed to postpone the bad news and to win trust.

Here are some examples. 

"I agree that the Smith account is important" (even though the memo eventually informs the reader that it won't be completed until next week).

"Thank-you for your recent interest in the book-keeping position" (even though the letter eventually informs the reader that the company has decided to offer the job to another applicant).

"Your order is being shipped today" (even though the rest of the letter might go on to discuss the fact that the price has increased since the order was placed).

Now be careful with buffers.  What you don't want to do is create the impression that you're stalling, or attempting to hide the negative message, or just offering a line of B.S.  If there is bad news to communicate, you have to be honest in communicating it and you need to get to it in a way that doesn't waste your reader's time.  However, a well-placed paragraph, sentence, or just a phrase can go a long way toward softening the blow and helping readers realize that even though the news is bad, you still have their best interests in mind.


SAMPLES IN SEARLES

As you think about a direct and indirect approach (and decide which approach to take in your own letters, memos, and e-mails), it might be helpful to look at some examples.  On pages 47-51, Searles provides several sample letters.  Here is a list of which letters use a direct approach and which ones use an indirect approach:

  • p. 34--direct

  • p. 35--indirect

  • p. 36--indirect

  • p. 37--indirect

You might find it useful to try to identify the buffer in each indirect letter and to think for each letter why the writer of chose the approach he or she did.