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How to Write a Business Letter That Gets Results

How to Write a Business Letter That Gets Results
How to Write a Business Letter

I can’t tell you how many truly awful letters I’ve had to read in my life. As a former administrative assistant, I was responsible for all the unsolicited submissions to a major New York museum. Artists and collectors all over the country (and abroad) wrote to have their work considered for display or acquisition, and to be honest the decision frequently rested more on the quality of their cover letter than on their work — which, romantic dreams aside, rarely if ever sells itself.

In these days of email and instant messaging, letter writing is becoming a lost art, and especially the formal letter. I’m pretty sure that formal letter rules are still taught in schools, but very little of it sticks. If you’re an executive or other high-ranking person within an organization, you can probably rely on your secretary or assistant to handle the niceties of letter writing, but for everyone else, knowing how to write a strong letter ourselves is important.

There is a tendency to think that the often arbitrary rules of letter writing don’t really matter, that as long as your recipient can work out what you’re saying, that’s good enough. This shows a great deal of disrespect for your recipient, though, and for your own ideas. It suggests that a) your reader’s time isn’t valuable enough for you to write clearly and efficiently, and b) that you don’t particularly care about the content of your letter.

The basic structure of a formal letter

The rules might be arbitrary, but taken together they create a formula that produces clarity. When a letter follows all the rules, the reader doesn’t have to struggle to figure out where a piece of information might be, what action they should take next, or who sent it — everything can be found in its place. Knowing the rules of letter writing is, in that sense, akin to knowing the rules of page layout or web design — the format of the document should support and clarify the content.

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From top to bottom, a formal letter contains the following elements:

  1. Return address and date: (Upper right hand corner) Once upon a time, this was necessary in case the letter became separated from the envelope, but I doubt that happens much any more. Even so, this is where your reader is going to look to find your address and the date the letter was written, so it should be there.
  2. Mailing address of recipient: (Left-hand side, one line below the return address) This identifies the recipient of the letter. In office environments, letters are often removed from their envelopes and circulated; this helps the letter get back to its rightful recipient.
  3. Salutation: (Two lines below the recipient’s address, or about 1/3 down the page) The person the letter is intended for. Avoid “Dear Sir/Madam” and especially “To Whom it May Concern” unless absolutely necessary; not directing a letter to an exact recipient suggests that you don’t care who reads it (or you would have made a call or checked their website) — and may prevent the letter from reaching someone who can act on your letter.
  4. Body: The body of the letter has three parts: an introduction that should explain who you are and why you are writing, a middle part that gives the details and persuades your reader to act, and a closing that tells your reader what action you expect or would like them to take.
  5. Valediction: (Left-aligned, two lines below the body) This is the line before your signature. For people whose name you don’t know, use “Faithfully yours” — but avoid writing letters without finding out a name first. When you know the recipient’s name, sign it “Sincerely yours” or just “Sincerely”, or in the US “Yours truly” is acceptable. Don’t try anything more cutesy or friendly unless a) you know the recipient quite well and are certain you can be informal without seeming disrespectful, or b) you have a “trademark” letter ending that’s part of your public persona (and the talent and popularity to pull it off).
  6. Signature and printed name: Signing your name is a minimal assurance that you stand behind what was written. Since your signature is likely to be difficult to read, type your name down a couple of lines so that your reader knows who is writing to them.
  7. Enclosures: (Below signature block) If you have included any further material — a business card, a brochure, a price sheet, whatever — list the number of items and describe each. For example:

    Enclosures (2): brochure, price sheet.

Finally, proofread, proofread, and proofread again. While a friend might excuse even the worst spelling and grammar, a business letter is often your first (and maybe only) chance to make an impression — it needs to be impeccable.

Tips and Tricks for Better Letters

Following the proper formatting is only the first part of writing a letter that gets action. The content of a poorly formatted letter is unlikely to be read — in one study of HR personnel, more than 80% said they’d throw out a resume if there were only one or two errors in the cover letter — but even a well-formed letter is unlikely to be acted on unless the content is powerful and engaging.

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There’s an old copywriting formula that can be very helpful in letter-writing: AIDA. AIDA stands for attention, interest, desire, and action. First you get the reader’s attention, then you get them interested, then you arouse their desire, and then you tell them what action to take.

Consider, for example, the typical opening of a business letter.

  • Attached please find a resume for your consideration for…
  • I am writing to inform you that…
  • This letter is in regard to your recent…

None of them give the reader’s mind much to “stick” on. Some attention-grabbing strategies include:

  • Flattery: “I have been a fan of your work for a long time…”; “It has always been my dream to work for your company…”
  • A question: “Did you know that…”: “Have you ever had this problem…”
  • Surprise: “10 million people will be killed in fondue accidents this year”; “In the last three years, I’ve tracked down and brought to justice 8 of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted criminals”

Once you have their attention, you need to create interest in whatever you’re offering. Promise to solve their problems — with a great product, with your services, with a partnership, with whatever it is you’re writing about.

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For instance, in a typical job application, the problem is that the company or organization needs a position filled, and more importantly they need someone who can do the job well and help the organization achieve its mission (which may be more profits, or it may be to save children in Darfur or to end global warming or to cure cancer). You arouse their interest by telling them that you’re the right person for the position and by promising to help them achieve their mission.

Then you arouse their desire by explaining how you can do this — for instance, by showing how successful you’ve been in other positions, or by explaining the specialized training you have relevant to the job. Avoid jargon here — explain clearly and concisely the benefits of the solution you offer.

For example, if you are proposing a new business process, you might say something like:

I designed a system similar to this at my former position, and worker productivity jumped 20%, and profits increased even more. This new process will not be difficult to implement, either — with only minimal funds and resources, I can have it in place by the end of the next quarter.

When I worked in marketing, I learned an important lesson: nobody buys anything based on features (and “buy” is used in its loosest possible sense, like you “buy” an idea). You have to explain exactly how those features will benefit the potential buyer.

If you’ve done that well, they’re going to be asking themselves “How can I make this happen?”, which you answer in the last section of your letter by proposing an action they can take. “Call me at (212) 555-1212 to arrange an interview” or “Let’s meet next Thursday to discuss this proposal” or “Order your copy today”.

Don’t leave the action for your recipient to figure out. I think a lot of time we lack the confidence to ask for the action we want, and we give ourselves an “out” by leaving it unsaid, hoping they’ll figure it out themselves.

Consider the daily life of whomever you’re sending a letter to — how many other things might they have on their mind when they read your letter. Maybe they have a meeting in five minutes. Maybe yours is one of 200 letters they have to wade through. Maybe it’s the end of the day and they’re worn out. Giving them a concrete action to take makes it all the more likely that it will “stick” — they’ll add it to their todo list or their calendar, they’ll pick up the phone, they’ll check out your website, or they’ll respond.

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In the end, this is all about respect for your recipient. If you’re offering a real solution to a real problem, people want to know about it. By following proper and well-understood formats and keeping your writing clear and engaging, you’re making it easier for them to solve their problem. Provided that you’re honest and have the skills and talents to back up your claims, writing a good, solid letter makes it more likely that both you and your reader will be satisfied. Try it the next time you have to write an important letter.

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Published on September 23, 2020

6 Effective Negotiation Skills to Master

6 Effective Negotiation Skills to Master

I don’t know about you, but many times when I hear the word negotiate I think of lawyers working out a business deal or having to do battle with a car salesman to try to get a lower price. Since I am in recruiting, the term “negotiation” comes up when someone is attempting to get a higher compensation package.

If we think about it, we tend to negotiate almost every day in a wide variety of things we do. Getting a handle on the important negotiation skills can be incredibly beneficial in many parts of our lives. Let’s take a look at 6 effective negotiation skills to master.

What is Negotiation?

First, let’s take a look at what negotiation is. Put simply, negotiation is a method by which people settle their differences. It is a process in which compromise or agreement can be reached without argument or dispute.

Anytime two people or sides disagree on something, they are almost always looking for the best possible outcome for their side. This could be from an individual’s perspective or someone representing an organization.

In reality, it’s rare that one side gets everything they want and the other side gets nothing that they are seeking. Seeking to reach a common ground of sorts where both sides feel like they are getting most of what they want is the key to being successful and maintaining the relationship.

Places We Negotiate

I’ve mentioned that we negotiate in just about all phases of our life. For those of you who are shaking your head no, I invite you to think about the following:

1. Work/Business

This one is the most obvious and it’s what naturally comes to mind when we think of the word “negotiate”.

When you first started at your current job, you might have asked for a higher salary. It could be that you delivered a huge new client to your company and used this as leverage in your most recent evaluation for more compensation. If you work with vendors (and just about every company does), maybe you worked them to a lower price or better contract terms.

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In recruiting, I negotiate with candidates and hiring managers all the time to land the best talent I can find. It’s very common to accept additional work with the (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) agreement that it will benefit your career in the future.

Recently, I took over a project that was my boss was working on so that I would be able to attend a conference later in the year. And so it goes, we do this all day long at work.

2. Personal

I don’t know about you, but I negotiate with my spouse all the time. I’ll cook dinner with the understanding that she does the dishes. Who wants to mow the lawn and who wants to vacuum and dust the house?

I think we should save 10% for retirement, but she thinks 5% is plenty. Therefore, we save 8%. And don’t even get me started with my kids. My older daughter can borrow my car as soon as she finishes her chores. My younger daughter can go hang out with her friends when her homework is done.

Then, there are all those interactions in our personal lives outside our homes. The carpenter wants to charge me $12,000 to build a new deck. I think $10,000 is plenty so we agree on $11,000. I ask my neighbor if I can borrow his snowblower in the winter if I invite him over the next time I grill steak. And so on.

3. Ourselves

You didn’t expect this one, did you? We negotiate with ourselves all day long.

I’ll make sure I don’t skip my workout tomorrow since I’m going to have that extra piece of pizza. My spouse has been quiet the last few days, is it worth me asking her about, or should I leave it alone? I think the car place charged me for some repairs that weren’t needed, should I say something or just let it go? I know my friend has been having some personal challenges, should I check in with him? We’ve been friends for a long time, I’m sure he’d come to me if he needed help. I’ve got the #4 pick in this year’s Fantasy Football draft, should I choose a running back or a wide receiver?

Think about that non-stop voice inside your head. It always seems to be chattering away about something and many times, it’s us negotiating with ourselves. I’ll finish up that report that the boss needs before I turn on the football game.

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Why Negotiation Skills Are So Important

Put simply, negotiation skills are important because we all interact with other people, and not only other people but other organizations and groups of people as well.

We all rarely want the same thing or outcome. Most of the time a vendor is looking at getting you to pay a higher price for something than you want to spend. Therefore, it’s important to negotiate to some middle ground that works well for both sides.

My wife and I disagree on how much to save for retirement. If we weren’t married it wouldn’t be an issue. We’d each contribute how much we wanted to on our retirement funds. We choose to be married, so we have to come to some agreement that we both feel comfortable with. We have to compromise. Therefore, we have to negotiate.

If we each lived on a planet by ourselves, we would be free to do just about anything we wanted to. We wouldn’t have to compromise with anyone because we wouldn’t interact with anyone. We would make every choice unilaterally the way we wanted to.

As we all know, this isn’t how things are. We are constantly interacting with other people and organizations, each one with their own agenda’s, viewpoints, and opinions. Therefore, we have to be able to work together.

6 Negotiation Skills to Master

Having strong negotiation skills helps us create win-win situations with others, allowing us to get most of what we want in conjunction with others around us.

Now, let’s look at 6 effective negotiation skills to master.

1. Preparation

Preparation is a key place to start with when getting ready to negotiate. Being prepared means having a clear vision of what you want and how you’d go about achieving it. It means knowing what the end goal looks like and also what you are willing to give to get it.

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It also means knowing who you are negotiating with and what areas they might be willing to compromise on. You should also know what your “bottom line” is. By “bottom line” I mean what is the most you are willing to give up to get what you want.

For instance, several years ago, I decided it was time to get a newer car. I say newer because I wanted a “new to me” car, not a brand new car. I did my research and figured out what type of car I wanted. I decided on what must-have items on the car I wanted, the highest amount of miles that would already be on it, the colors I was willing to get it in, and the highest amount of money I was willing to pay.

After visiting numerous car dealerships I was able to negotiate buying a car. I knew what I was willing to give up (amount of money) and what I was willing to accept, things like the color, amount of miles, etc. I came prepared. This is critical.

2. Clear Communication

The next key skill you need to be an effective negotiator is clear communication. You have to be able to clearly articulate what you want to the other party. This means both clear verbal and written communication.

If you can’t clearly tell the other person what you want, how do you expect to get it? Have you ever worked through something with a vendor or someone else only to learn of a surprise right at the end that wasn’t talked about before? This is not what you would call clear communication. It’s essential to be able to share a coherent and logical vision with the person you are working with.

3. Active Listening

Let’s do a quick review of active listening. This is when you are completely focused on the speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information, and respond appropriately. This is a necessary ingredient to be able to negotiate successfully. You must be able to fully focus on the other person’s wants to completely understand them.

If you aren’t giving them your full attention, you may miss some major points or details. This leads to frustration down the road on both sides. Ensure you are employing your active listening skills when in arbitration mode.

4. Teamwork and Collaboration

To be able to get to a place of common ground and a win-win scenario, you have to have a sense of teamwork and collaboration.

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If you are only thinking about yourself and what you want without giving much care to what the other person is wanting, you are bound to wind up without a solution. The other person may get frustrated and give up if they see you are unwilling to meet them halfway or care little for what they want.

When you collaborate, you are working together to help each other get what is most important to you. The other upside to negotiating with a sense of teamwork and collaboration is that it helps create a sense of trust, which, in turn, helps provide positive energy for working to a successful conclusion.

5. Problem Solving

Problem-solving is another key negotiation skill. When you are working with the other person to get the deal done many times you’ll face new challenges along the way.

Maybe you want a new vendor to provide training on the software they are selling you but they say it’s going to cost an additional $20,000 to provide this service. If you don’t have the additional $20,000 in the budget to spend on the software but you feel the training is critical, how are you going to solve that problem?

From what I’ve seen, most vendors aren’t willing to provide additional services without getting paid for them. This is where problem-solving skills will help continue the discussions. You might suggest to the vendor that your company will also be looking to replace their financial software next year, and you’d be happy to ensure they get one of the first seats at the table when the time comes if they could perhaps lower the pricing on their training.

There’s a solution to most challenges, but it takes problem-solving skills to work through them effectively.

6. Decision-Making Ability

Finally, having strong decision-making ability will help you seal the deal when you get to a place where everyone feels like they are getting what works for them. Each step of the way you can cross off the list when you get what you are looking for and decide to move onto the next item. Then, once you have all of your must-have boxes checked and the other side feels good about things, it’s time to shake hands and sign on the dotted line. Powerful decision-making ability will help you get to the finish line together.

Conclusion

There you have it, 6 effective negotiation skills to master to lead a more fulfilling life. Once we realize that we negotiate in one form or another almost every day in every phase of our lives, we realize how critical a skill it is.

Possessing strong negotiation skills will help you in nearly every one of your relationships at both the workplace and in your personal life. If you feel your arbitration tools could use some sharpening, try some of the 6 effective negotiation skills to master that we’ve talked about.

More Tips to Improve Your Negotiation Skills

Featured photo credit: Windows via unsplash.com

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