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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 [email protected]), 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.

More by this author

Alli Hill

Freelance Writer and Marketing Consultant

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Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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