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To Whom It May Concern: Do All Formal Letters Have to Start Like This?

To Whom It May Concern: Do All Formal Letters Have to Start Like This?

You would think that a initiating a message with “To whom it may concern” is a safe bet, but you might be surprised to learn what those words really convey to your reader – and it’s not all good news.

Avoid generic formalities at all costs.

It’s been common practice to use formal, non-identifying salutations in a variety of occasions, from resumes and cover letters to addressing potential clients to writing business letters and beyond. There used to be a good reason for that: people writing these types of communications were typically either sending them en masse or didn’t have enough information about the recipient available.

But times have changed.

As marketing and communications have shifted to a more personalized approach, combined with the research assistance that the internet now provides, there simply isn’t a good justification to use the same old “To whom it may concern” segue. (The old “Dear sir or madam” is equally horrific.)

Generic formal greeting pisses people off.

Using a formal tone as your opening words has become such a tradition that people can just about anticipate what those words will say without having to read them.

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Although you might not know exactly who you are speaking to, using a generic formal greeting does nothing to help your letter stand out from others. It’s bland, it’s trite, and it’s boring. Your opening line is your chance to set the tone for your entire letter, and if you opt for the basic “To whom it may concern,” the reader will anticipate the rest of your letter to be nothing more than basic, as well.

The lack of differentiation creates a problem of a second sort.

What you might consider a safety net (since you certainly don’t want to assume a gender, job title or marital status), the generic “To whom it may concern” actually lets the reader know you have no clue “to whom you are concerning.” In other words, it immediately tells the reader that you are out of touch with your intended audience.

If you want to market yourself or establish a relationship, you need to have a better idea of who you are marketing to. Granted, you might not always have a name available, and that’s okay. But you can get to know more about their company culture, which could give you ideas in better ways to address your intended recipient.

For instance, a fun, vivacious company culture might respond to an equally fun greeting, such as “Hey there, [first name]!”

When in doubt, you can do a little research online to get a name, or call the company and ask for the information directly.

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Seeming behind the times is a problem in itself.

Whether you are selling a product for your company or selling yourself for a job opportunity, people want to work with others who are “in the now,” people who can (and have) adapted to the fast-paced changes in the industry. Think about it: are you still using a rotary home phone, dial up internet connection, and a photo development lab? No? Then why would you opt for an archaic expression as your first impression, especially when there are better options out there?

Simply put, using old phrases can make you seem dated, static and, in some ways, obsolete. And those aren’t the qualities you want to associate yourself with if you aim to get what you expect out of your communications.

Is it ever okay to use “To whom it may concern?”

Although there are so many better, more modern, more effective options, there still exists a scenario or two where the classic “To whom it may concern” might be relevant.

And it depends on whether or not the letter is for a specific purpose.

Consider if you asked someone for a letter of recommendation you could use to present to potential employers. In this case, the person would write one letter, not for anyone in particular, and you would present the letter as needed. The person writing the letter has no intentions of establishing a relationship with the intended recipients, and can use a formal salutation to cover any potential scenarios.

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However, it would be better if you could get an editable copy of the recommendation letter and each time address it specifically to the persons requesting it, but the formal option here isn’t completely frowned upon.

There’re alternatives to vague, overly-used formal salutations.

The way you address your reader is the first thing they will read, and can set the tone for the rest of your content. If you want to catch their attention and boost your chances they read all the way to the bottom, take a look at some of these alternative salutations:

Cover Letter

As a job applicant, you only have a few seconds to make a standout impression. That said, generic wording will never put you on the top of the callback pile. Instead, try these phrases in your next cover letter:

  • Dear Hiring Manager,
  • Hello [first name of recruiter],
  • Greetings, [name of department or company]!
  • Dear [First name of recruiter],

Business Letter

When you want to catch the eyes of a potential client, you want that client to feel like you know them, or least know something about them. Business is about building relationships, and those relationships won’t exist unless you make the effort to get to know the people you are targeting. Instead, try addressing your prospects like this:

  • Hi [first name],
  • Hi, [company] [department] team!
  • Hello, [company]!

Email to Potential Client

If you only choose to avoid the dreaded generic opening line in one type of communication, it should be emails. Your email stands a better chance of being opened if you can personalize it to the recipient. To do this, you should include their name in the subject line, as well as in the salutation.

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If you are sending an email to a single-owner inbox (not a generic one like customerservice@company.com), your greeting should reflect that it’s to a person, not a potential group:

  • Hi [first name],
  • Dear hiring manager,

However, if you are emailing to an inbox that might be monitored by multiple users, you can address your communications to reflect a group:

  • Hello [company] recruiting team,
  • Greetings, [company] marketing department!

Remember, just because you see “To whom it may concern” on business communications does not mean it’s the best option. Don’t be afraid to try something different.

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Alli Hill

Freelance Writer and Marketing Consultant

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

16 Productivity Secrets of Highly Successful People Revealed

The same old motivational secrets don’t really motivate you after you’ve read them for the tenth time, do they?

How about a unique spin on things?

These 16 productivity secrets of successful people will make you reevaluate your approach to your home, work, and creative lives. Learn from these highly successful people, turn these little things they do into your daily habits and you’ll get closer to success.

1. Empty your mind.

It sounds counterproductive, doesn’t it?

Emptying your mind when you have so much to remember seems like you’re just begging to forget something. Instead, this gives you a clean slate so you’re not still thinking about last week’s tasks.

Clear your mind and then start thinking only about what you need to do immediately, and then today. Tasks that need to be accomplished later in the week can wait.

Here’s a guide to help you empty your mind and think sharper:

How to Declutter Your Mind to Sharpen Your Brain and Fall Asleep Faster

2. Keep certain days clear.

Some companies are scheduling “No Meeting Wednesdays,” which means, funnily enough, that no one can hold a meeting on a Wednesday. This gives workers a full day to work on their own tasks, without getting sidetracked by other duties or pointless meetings.

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This can work in your personal life too, for example if you need to restrict Facebook access or limit phone calls.

3. Prioritize your work.

Don’t think every task is created equal! Some tasks aren’t as important as others, or might take less time.

Try to sort your tasks every day and see what can be done quickly and efficiently. Get these out of the way so you have more free time and brain power to focus on what is more important.

Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to prioritize works, take a look at it here:

How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

4. Chop up your time.

Many successful business leaders chop their time up into fifteen-minute intervals. This means they work on tasks for a quarter of an hour at a time, or schedule meetings for only fifteen minutes. It makes each hour seem four times as long, which leads to more productivity!

5. Have a thinking position.

Truman Capote claimed he couldn’t think unless he was laying down. Proust did this as well, while Stravinsky would stand on his head!

What works for others may not work for you. Try to find a spot and position that is perfect for you to brainstorm or come up with ideas.

6. Pick three to five things you must do that day.

To Do lists can get overwhelming very quickly. Instead of making a never-ending list of everything you can think of that needs to be done, make daily lists that include just three to five things.

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Make sure they’re things that need to be done that day, so you don’t keep putting them off.

7. Don’t try to do too much.

OK, so I just told you to work every day, and now I’m telling you to not do too much? It might sound like conflicting advice, but not doing too much means not biting off more than you can chew. Don’t say yes to every work project or social engagement and find yourself in way over your head.

8. Have a daily action plan.

Don’t limit yourself to a to-do list! Take ten minutes every morning to map out a daily action plan. It’s a place to not only write what needs to be done that day, but also to prioritize what will bring the biggest reward, what will take the longest, and what goals will be accomplished.

Leave room for a “brain dump,” where you can scribble down anything else that’s on your mind.

9. Do your most dreaded project first.

Getting your most dreaded task over with first means you’ll have the rest of the day free for anything and everything else. This also means that you won’t be constantly putting off the worst of your projects, making it even harder to start on it later.

10. Follow the “Two-Minute Rule.”

The “Two-Minute Rule” was made famous by David Allen. It’s simple – if a new task comes in and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then. Putting it off just adds to your to-do list and will make the task seem more monumental later.

11. Have a place devoted to work.

If you work in an office, it’s no problem to say that your cubicle desk is where you work every day.

But if you work from home, make sure you have a certain area specifically for work. You don’t want files spread out all over the dinner table, and you don’t want to feel like you’re not working just because you’re relaxing on the couch.

Agatha Christie never wrote at her desk, she wrote wherever she could sit down. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Thomas Wolfe, at 6’6″ tall, used the top of his refrigerator as a desk. Richard Wright wrote on a park bench, rain or shine.

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Have a space where, when you go there, you know you’re going to work. Maybe it’s a cafe downstairs, the library, or a meeting room. Whenever and wherever works for you, do your works there.

12. Find your golden hour.

You don’t have to stick to a “typical” 9–5 schedule!

Novelist Anne Rice slept during the day and wrote at night to avoid distractions. Writer Jerzy Kosinski slept eight hours a day, but never all at once. He’d wake in the morning, work, sleep four hours in the afternoon, then work more that evening.

Your golden hour is the time when you’re at your peak. You’re alert, ready to be productive, and intent on crossing things off your to-do list.

Once you find your best time, protect it with all your might. Make sure you’re always free to do your best uninterrupted work at this time.

13. Pretend you’re on an airplane.

It might not be possible to lock everyone out of your office to get some peace and quiet, but you can eliminate some distractions.

By pretending you’re on an airplane, you can act like your internet access is limited, you’re not able to get something from your bookcase, and you can’t make countless phone calls.

Eliminating these distractions will help you focus on your most important tasks and get them done without interruption.

14. Never stop.

Writers Anthony Trollope and Henry James started writing their next books as soon as they finished their current work in progress.

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Stephen King writes every day of the year, and holds himself accountable for 2,000 words a day! Mark Twain wrote every day, and then read his day’s work aloud to his family to get their feedback.

There’s something to be said about working nonstop, and putting out continuous work instead of taking a break. It’s just a momentum that will push you go further./

15. Be in tune with your body.

Your mind and body will get tired of a task after ninety minutes to two hours focused on it. Keep this in mind as you assign projects to yourself throughout the day, and take breaks to ensure that you won’t get burned out.

16. Try different methods.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards. This made it easy to rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and chapters by shuffling the cards around.

It does sound easier, and more fun, than copying and pasting in Word! Once Nabokov liked the arrangement, his wife typed them into a single manuscript.

Same for you, don’t give up and think that it’s impossible for you to be productive when one method fails. Try different methods until you find what works perfectly for you.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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