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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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Last Updated on July 13, 2020

9 Simple Ways to Always Stay Positive

9 Simple Ways to Always Stay Positive

It’s common to be struck with a bout of pessimism, or to naturally be more towards the pessimistic end of the perspective spectrum. It’s hard to see the positives in life and become an optimist when you’re lost in the murky waters of negative thinking.

However, Henrik Edberg, the founder of The Positivity Blog is here to share nine ways we can create a more optimistic outlook and positive perspective:

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” — Maria Robinson

When I was younger — in my teens and early 20s — I was trapped. Not physically, but mentally: by the destructive thought pattern called pessimism. This negative thinking poisoned what might have been a pretty good and opportunity-filled childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. This pessimism created ceilings and walls where there really were none.

Throughout the period when I was ridden by pessimism, my life and I mostly stood still. Looking back, it was a terrible waste. If you are in pessimistic place, you don’t have to stay there for the rest of your life. I didn’t, for I learned to replace my negative thinking with optimism.

In this article I’ll explore nine positivity habits that have helped me to go from someone who was pessimistic most of the time to someone who is now optimistic almost all the time. I recommend to not try to add all the habits at one go but to choose one habit and to practice it for 30 days so it becomes a habit, before adding the next.

1. Ask Yourself the Right Questions

This is the simplest but perhaps also the most important habit I have discovered in adopting an optimistic mindset. The questions we ask ourselves day in and day out when we wind up in negative, difficult or uncertain situations make all the difference in our life.

A pessimist might ask him/herself questions like:

  • “Why did this happen to me?”
  • “Why do bad things happen to me all the time?”

But an optimist asks him/herself the questions that open up the mind to new viewpoints and possibilities. A few of my favorite questions for finding the optimistic perspective are:

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  • “What is one good thing about this situation?”
  • “What can I learn from this situation?”
  • “What is one small step I can take today to start solving this situation?”

2. Create a Positive Environment to Live In

The people you spend your time with and the information you let influence your mind will have a huge effect on your attitude and how you think about things.

Watch this YouTube video and learn the power of a positive environment:

So choose to:

  • Spend more time with the people who lift you up. And less time – or no time – with people who just bring you down by being negative and critical. Read: You are the Average of the 5 People You Spend the Most Time With
  • Let in the information that supports you. Spend less time on negative and self-esteem damaging media sources and spend more time reading positive and constructive blogs and books, watching motivating movies, listening to inspirational songs, and listening to audio books and podcasts created by optimistic people. Check out 12 Inspirational Movies With Important Life Lessons To Learn and 25 Most Inspirational Songs of All Time.

3. Be Grateful for What You Have (Don’t Forget About Yourself Too)

A very simple and quick way to boost the positive energy in your life is to tap into gratitude.

I usually do it by asking one or more of these questions:

  1. What can I be grateful for in my life today?
  2. Who are 3 people that I can be grateful to have in my life and why?
  3. What are 3 things I can be grateful for about myself?

Just spend 60 seconds or a few minutes during your day with answering one of these questions to reap the wonderful benefits.

4. Don’t Forget About Your Physical Self

Being an optimist isn’t just about thinking in a different way. It is also about caring for the physical part of ourselves.

I have found that working out a couple of times a week, enough quality sleep each night and eating healthy food has a huge effect on my mindset.

If I mismanage those very basic things then negative thoughts pop up far more often and I become more pessimistic and shut down about the possibilities in my life.

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So don’t neglect these basic fundamentals. Just caring for your physical self the right way can minimize a whole bunch of problems in life.

5. Start Your Day in an Optimistic Way

The way you start your morning can set the tone for the rest of your day. For example, a stress-free morning often leads to less stress during the rest of the day.

So how can you set an optimistic tone for your day?

A three-step combination that has worked very well for me is to ask myself a gratitude question during breakfast, read some positive information online or in a book very early in the morning and then follow that up with exercising.

This sets my mind on the right path and fills me up with energy for my day.

6. Focus on Solutions

A sure way to feel more negative about a situation is to sit around and do nothing about it. Instead, use the questions I shared in step one and open up your mind to the possibilities of the situation you are in.

If you have trouble to get started with taking action, ask yourself:

What is one small step I can take today to get the ball rolling?

Then take that small step forward. However small this step is, it can have a big effect in your mood and thoughts. If the step feels too big or it just makes you procrastinate, then ask yourself:

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What is an even smaller step I can take to move forward today?

The most important thing is to move forward, even if it’s a tiny baby step.

7. Reduce Your Worries

The worrying habit is a powerful and destructive one and can take over anyone’s thinking. It used to be one of my biggest obstacles to optimism and to moving forward in life.

Two effective steps that have helped me and still help me to this day to minimize the worries are:

  1. Ask yourself: how many of my worries ever happened in reality? If you are like me you will find that the answer is: very few. Most of the things you fear throughout your life will never happen. They are just nightmares or monsters in your own mind. This question can help you to do a reality check, to calm down and to realize that you have most likely just been building another imaginary nightmare.
  2. Focus on solutions and the action you can take. The worries grow stronger in a foggy mind and an inactive body. So use the questions in Steps 1 and 6 to move out of your worries and into resolution.

8. Don’t Let Ideals Ruin Things

A common mistake people make when making a shift in their attitudes is that they think that they have be perfect and do things perfectly all the time. This traps them from being positive.

Changing to a positive attitude can be gradual. While you may slip and stumble, continuing this way over time will strengthen your positive viewpoint more and more.

But if you set an inhuman standard for yourself and think you have to go from being a pessimist to always being an optimist, then you may find it hard to live up to that. And so you may feel like a failure. You get angry with yourself. And you may even give up on changing this habit and fall back into negative thinking.

So instead, focus on gradual change. If you are optimistic 40% of the time right now, try to improve this to being optimistic 60% of the time. Then, increase that to 80% when you are used to the new standard, then subsequently 100% if you can.

This focus on gradual improvement is far more sustainable and likely to bring long-term success than trying to reach an inhuman standard grounded in perfection.

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9. Finally, a Reminder to Help You to Not Give Up

I would like to end this article with a simple but powerful and timeless thought that comforted and encouraged me to continue on when things looked bleak.

That thought is: It is always darkest before the dawn.

This thought has helped me to hold on and keep going when my social skills and dating life was just plain bad. It has helped me to continue on in my online business when things looked like they would never pick up. It has helped me to put one foot over another even when things looked dark.

I have found this thought to be very true. Why? Because when things seemed to be at the lowest for my blog, business, dating life or life in general, something positive would always happened. That’s probably because being at a low point forced me to change how I did things.

But maybe also because life has a way of evening itself out when I go on. By taking action rather than give up, something good will always happens.

Seeing this thought live itself out has strengthened my belief in staying optimistic, in taking action and to keep going even when going through rough patches.

Re-syndicated 9 Simple Habits to Stay Positive in Life | Personal Excellence

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Featured photo credit: Allie Smith via unsplash.com

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