How to apologise in writing

Poor apologies are all too common in business. But the flipside is that, because they’re so rare, a good, convincing apology to a client can leave you with a stronger relationship than before you slipped up.

It isn’t hard to do, either. The key is to remember that you don’t want to sound like a faceless company talking to the faceless masses, but like one human talking to another.

Don’t be passive

Keep your apology active. (‘We made a mistake,’ not ‘Mistakes were made’.) This is almost always good writing advice anyway but it has a specific point here, which is that the passive voice looks like you’re blurring the facts or dodging responsibility. Rewrite ‘Mistakes have been made, the error is regretted and apologies are offered’ as ‘We made mistakes, we regret the error and we offer our apologies’ – and see the difference.

Your mistake involved someone doing something to someone (or, as the case may be, failing to). So your apology should too. Who made the mistake? How are you rectifying it?

Don’t copy the politicians

Make sure you’re actually apologising for the thing done and any damage caused. Politicians and PR people are masters of the non-apology apology. But, if you aspire to be more trustworthy, avoid accidentally imitating them.

One politicians’ trick is the conditional apology – ‘If our mistake inconvenienced anyone, we are sorry’ – which implies that perhaps no one was inconvenienced and so perhaps there’s really nothing to complain about.

There’s also its close cousin – ‘We apologise if any offence was caused by our mistake’ – which sneakily manages to say sorry for the offence, but not the mistake itself.

A similar trap you might fall into is the formulation ‘We would like to apologise,’ which prompts the question ‘Why don’t you just go ahead and do it, then?’

Don’t stifle your apology under wodges of explanation. By all means tell people what happened, but apologise first. And make sure you don’t give 20 sentences of explanation for every sentence of apology, or it’ll look like you’re making excuses.

In short, be active, be direct, don’t attach conditions and be sure you actually are making an apology and not just offering a misleading sentence that looks superficially like one.

So what works?

A simple ‘Apologies’ might do if you’ve forgotten to send an email, but is a bit throwaway for more serious mistakes.

Beyond that, your choices are surprisingly limited. If you go declaring yourself ‘chagrined’, ‘penitent’ or ‘contrite’, you risk sounding like you’ve been hunting through a thesaurus for adjectives to give your apology more weight. And there isn’t another verb that does the job half as well as ‘apologise’.

‘We offer our apologies’, ‘I am sorry’, ‘We apologise’ – all of these are the kind of things that real humans say to each other and so carry more clout. If life and limb were at stake, you might make the apology ‘sincere’, or ‘heartfelt’, or ‘deepest’. Beware, though, that the more you pile on the adjectives, the more you risk undermining your own message.

If you want to show how sincere you are, then show, don’t tell – use plain language to admit what you did wrong and what you’re doing to make it right.
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The good, the bad and the ugly

For an example of how to do it wrong, see Justin Timberlake’s statement after he accidentally ripped off a crucial piece of Janet Jackson’s costume at the 2004 Super Bowl: ‘I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable.’

A slightly more sincere try that still went wrong is Facebook’s response to its deletion of a mother’s pictures of her dying child.

Facebook finally gets around to saying: ‘We extend our deepest condolences to the family and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience,’ but only after 100 words of excuses, including the weaselly passive ‘was removed in error’. And someone should have pointed out that the problem isn’t ‘inconvenience’, but the heartbreak of a mother who had lost her child.

For a good apology, this response from a book publisher caught up in a racism row is an excellent example: ‘I deeply apologise to all who were offended by our association with this book. I am offended by it. I fully respect those who have been writing negative things about us today. You are correct.’

The publisher also took immediate action by removing an offending piece from its own site and clearly stating its position in case of future rows.

No ifs, buts, maybes, quibbles or conditions – there’s a straightforward recognition that people were offended and a clear apology to them. The result? The publisher’s reputation was saved, and it even won respect and admiration among people who had never heard of it before.

Proof that a simple, sincere apology is a better PR tool than any amount of slippery wording.
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Over to you

Two UK politicians have made high-profile public apologies in the past month. Take a look at their wording below, or click the links to view the videos. How do you rate their apologies? (In terms of language, we mean – save the politics for the pub.) Who do you think comes across as more sincere?

The chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, apologises for allegedly swearing at two police officers and calling them ‘plebs’.

‘I want first of all to reiterate the apology I made last week after the incident on Wednesday night in Downing Street. It had been the end of a long and extremely frustrating day, not that that is any excuse at all for what happened.’

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, apologises for not keeping his promise to oppose an increase in university tuition fees.

‘There’s no easy way to say this. We made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it, and for that I am sorry. When you’ve made a mistake, you should apologise, but more importantly, most importantly of all, you’ve got to learn from your mistakes – and that’s what we will do.’

This poll is now closed. Thank you to everyone who voted. Of 223 responses, 82% felt that Nick Clegg’s apology felt more sincere.

Image credit: MyImages – Micha / Shutterstock


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