‘I’m not going to like this blog.’

'Schwa? Who calls a company Schwa? I’ve never heard of them. I’ve looked them up and apparently they’re not all qualified behavioural scientists. Some of them are just writers and consultants who read a lot. Besides, I’m busy. Who has time to read blogs these days?’

If that’s what you’re thinking, it doesn’t sound like we’re off to the best start. Or does it?

We’ve been reading FBI negotiator Chris Voss’ excellent, Never Split the Difference. It’s filled with linguistic tricks for smooth negotiations. And we think lots of his techniques work when you’re writing, too. One that particularly stuck with us is something Chris calls the ‘accusation audit’.

The idea’s pretty simple: before going into a negotiation, work out the worst things your audience could possibly think or say about you. Then say them first. When you’re open about your flaws you instantly build empathy. The other side may even rally to your defence. (My colleague Neil says ‘say the worst thing your reader’s thinking’ in Brilliant Business Writing, too.)

The accusation audit could help you plan most messages. After all, once you’re honest about why someone might not want to hear or buy from you, you can focus on changing their mind.

The tougher the message, the more an accusation audit could help 

Big organisations often struggle to say a heartfelt ‘sorry’ when it counts. When dozens of Tesco customers complained that their turkeys were off on Christmas morning, this is what their spokesperson had to say:

‘We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of great quality British turkeys this Christmas. We have exceptionally high standards so we will look to address the small number of complaints in recent days. We will get in touch with each customer so we can investigate how these instances may have happened.’

It’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect an organisation trying to protect its reputation to say. It’s on the defensive from the start, missing the point by telling us about the turkeys they sold that weren’t off. Even the word ‘investigate’ makes it seem like they think the customers could be to blame.

But what if they’d started with an accusation audit? Their spokesperson could have said this:

‘We’ve ruined Christmas for many families this year, and we can’t tell you how sorry we are.

We’ve totally let our customers down by selling turkeys that went off too soon. Even one ruined meal (at any time of the year) is one too many.

We’ll be saying sorry to everyone whose dinner we spoiled, and we’ll be talking to our suppliers to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’

Perhaps it sounds like a bit of an overreaction, but that’s kind of the point. You read it and start to question whether a rotten turkey is actually enough to spoil Christmas. Isn’t the day really about spending time with the people you love? Tesco still messed up, but if they admit their mistake and sound genuinely sorry, customers are far more likely to forgive them. The tougher they are on themselves, the more understanding we’ll be.

So, when things go wrong don’t hide them; be honest about them. You’ll trigger empathy, build trust, and you might just win your customers back round.

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