Writing an apology? Follow the KISS rule: Keep it short and sincere

Your mea culpa should not be the hypothetical, ‘If you were offended…’ Instead, own up to your miscue and express your contrition, and be quick about it.

It shouldn’t be difficult to say I’m sorry.

Yet as with so many occasions for professional communicators, the temptation rises to fill the page. Thus apologies are easy to screw up.

Your objective is to show that you’re sorry for any injury you’ve caused.

Whether this restores some balance of cosmic justice is beyond this writer’s powers of observation. As a practical matter, the purpose is to begin to restore credibility, character, good will and civil comity. More immediately, it is to stanch negativity flowing the offender’s way and clear the way to get back to work.

The most common apology isn’t an apology at all: I regret if anyone took offense at my remarks.

Willie Sutton regretted getting caught robbing banks, but that didn’t mean he was sorry. The “I regret…” path leaves a little wiggle room for not being sorry at all, and many people see it as the wink that it is.

Instead, try this: Every apology should be unambiguous.

If you’re sorry, say it.

If you’re not sorry, don’t say it halfway. Defend yourself.

If you’re not sorry but you’ve decided to say you are anyway, at least put your heart in it.

Get the words “I am sorry” in there in some high-profile place—at the top, near the end, repeated—just be sure it’s obvious. Don’t try to improve on “I’m sorry.” Let simplicity carry the clarity. Most of the words you might add will sound like an excuse, so avoid them.

On occasion, though, a thorough apology hits all the right notes. Here’s an emphatic apology from musician Henry Rollins, who wrote some intemperate comments upon the death of Robin Williams. After only a few hours of opprobrium in social media and beyond, Rollins wrote this on the LA Weekly website:

 For the last 9+ hours, I have been answering letters from people from all over the world. The anger is off the scale and in my opinion, well placed.

The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt. This is perhaps one of the bigger understatements of all time. I read all the letters. Some of them were very long and the disappointment, resentment and ringing clarity was jarring.

That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result.

I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not. I get so mad when I hear that someone has died this way. Not mad at them, mad at whatever got them there and that no one magically appeared to somehow save them.

I am not asking for a break from the caning, take me to the woodshed as much as you see fit. If what I said has caused you to be done with me, I get it.

I am deeply sorry. Down to my marrow. I can’t think that means anything to you, but I am. Completely sorry. It is not of my interest to hurt anyone but I know I did.

As Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

Fortunately, it is also one of the shortest. Write it, mean it, and move along.

Michael Long is a speaker, writer and educator and the author of “The Molecule of More.”


2 Responses to “Writing an apology? Follow the KISS rule: Keep it short and sincere”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Your company’s general counsel and law firm might counsel DON’T admit injury if you don’t want to kiss your job goodbye.

    One reason is that an injured may be more likely to sue if you admit causing injury than if a plaintiff has to prove it.

    A settlement may be lower if an opposing party knows fault must be proved and as almost all lawyers agree, “you never know for sure what a jury is going to decide.”

    In truth your company MAY NOT BE guilty. If there was a car accident, even if your company owned the car and a company employee was driving, the accident could have been caused by a defect in the car or a defect in the servicing of the car which should have uncovered a danger, or a dozen other possibilities so that in all honesty you are not guilty no matter how it looks at first glimpse.

    If there was God forbid a fire or explosion that killed people, then in all honesty isn’t that strongly contrary t what you and your management would have wanted? And perhaps wouldn’t have happened if people outside your company had not been negligent?

    Even if an accident was caused by your own people, isn’t the truth that a small number of people were responsible, not the company as a whole. When an American commits a crime, isn’t the truth that it’s the fault not of all Americans but of the person who did it?

    It is suggested that “if you are not sorry but you’ve decided to say you are anyway, at least put your heart in it.” Put your heart into lying? Does your management want to employ a knowing liar?

    “I have had a life of depression,” says the guy quoted with approval in this story. “Some days are excruciating.” But if one has caused serious injury, is depression an absolving excuse? Why didn’t the guy take pills or other treatment for his depression instead of injuring people? A suing lawyer could ask the jury: “Would it be perfectly okay for these people to injure YOU instead of getting treatment? How about if he caused a traffic accident because he doesn’t see well, should he have been wearing glasses like most of us would?”

    What you can honestly feel and honestly say is that you feel heartfelt regret for the INJURY without blaming yourself for causing it. You can add that in addition to feeling deep sympathy, what your company is going to DO in addition to helping the family is (a) donate to a good cause, perhaps at a respected university, to reduce accidents like this in the future, (b) help the injured in several ways, and (c) bring in world-famous safety experts to avert as much as possible such accidents in the future.

    A reality of life is that accidents may always happen but another reality is that your companies people like everyone else can be victim of accident, too many have been victims, and your company is taking action to reduce the number of people who are injured.

    With this kind of conservative action you can not only express the regret that you in truth feel but avoid kissing our job goodbye or being told by an angry general counsel what you should kiss.

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