How not to write an apology

There’s a lot of sorry people at the moment, so let’s look at the art of apology writing.

A good one should heal relationships and rebuild trust. Mindtools advises we should:

  1. Express remorse
  2. Admit responsibility
  3. Make amends
  4. Promise it will never happen again.

On the other hand, there are many ways they can fail. Let’s look at three recent ones to know what pitfalls to avoid.

1. Nolan Bushnell

Nolan Bushnell apology

Earlier this year the Game Developers Conference decided to present Atari founder Nolan Bushnell with their Pioneer award.

There was uproar over the move because of the alleged “sexually aggressive culture” he encouraged at Atari, and this week his award was scrapped. Bushnell issued a statement supporting the decision, and apologised for his past actions.

Nolan Bushnell apology

There are three problems with this.

Using if makes your regret conditional or hypothetical, and weakens it. Also he’s sorry for the offence or pain caused—not his behaviour, which is what staff would be more aggrieved about. Finally he uses the phrase which is sure to show you’re not genuinely sorry: I apologise!

2. Logan Paul

Logan Paul forest

At the start of the year, a 22 year-old YouTube personality faced criticism for posting a video in which he discovered a dead body in a Japanese forest where suicides are frequent. The result was outrage, and he posted a contrite tweet.

There’s a lot to consider in his message, so let’s look at each part.

Logan Paul 1

This is a great start. Paul’s language is conversational and open, and gets straight to the point using the word sorry.

Logan Paul 2

But instead of focusing on his actions, he works on improving his standing by highlighting it’s the only thing he’s ever done wrong.

Logan Paul 3

His recording and laughing about suicide was for positive reasons.

Logan Paul 4

Mitigating circumstances: he makes daily videos and got caught up in the moment.

Logan Paul 5

He invites us to consider his influence and remember it’s the first time he’s done anything wrong. He promises not to do it again.

Logan Paul 6

This is an informal sign-off for a serious matter. The non-standard grammar, emoji and hashtag make him look frivolous, which was the problem to begin with.

3. Lord Bates

Lord Bates apology

Baron Michael Bates sits in the House of Lords as Minister of State at the Department for International Development.

He seems admirable. In 1993 he voted against increasing MP’s salaries, when public sector worker’s were frozen. His work as an MP was rewarded with a life peerage in 2008. In 2016 he walked 2000 miles in South America for charity, raising £260,000.

This week he wasn’t so admirable. He was late to answer a question in parliament. So he apologised and resigned.

I wonder if you would permit me to offer my sincere apologies to Baroness Lister for my discourtesy in not being in my place to answer her question on a very important matter at the beginning of questions. During the five years which it’s been my privilege to answer questions from my dispatch box and on behalf of the government, I’ve always believed that we should offer replies to the highest possible standards of courtesy and respect in responding on behalf of the government to the legitimate questions of the legislature. I’m thoroughly ashamed at not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the Prime Minister with immediate effect. I do apologise.

It’s rather formal, but appropriate for the context. He expresses remorse and takes responsibility. But by resigning he doesn’t have chance to make amends (eg. answer the bleeding question?!)

No wonder a Downing Street spokesperson judged his resignation unnecessary and didn’t accept it. People will only take your remorse seriously if it is about something serious. It’s bizarre that Lord Bates decided to apologise and resign for such a trivial thing.

Tips when apologising

These examples teach us some lessons:

  • Say sorry rather than I apologise or I regret.
  • Don’t be conditional by using if.
  • Apologise for behaviour, not offence caused.
  • Don’t try to make excuses.
  • Think about formality.
  • Don’t apologise for trivial things.

Follow Mindtool’s steps: show remorse, admit responsibility, make amends and confirm it won’t happen again. Grammarly also has a useful page with examples.


Have you seen any apology fails lately? Drop a comment below!

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