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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 February 11, 2021

Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

How often have you said something simple, only to have the person who you said this to misunderstand it or twist the meaning completely around? Nodding your head in affirmative? Then this means that you are being unclear in your communication.

Communication should be simple, right? It’s all about two people or more talking and explaining something to the other. The problem lies in the talking itself, somehow we end up being unclear, and our words, attitude or even the way of talking becomes a barrier in communication, most of the times unknowingly. We give you six common barriers to communication, and how to get past them; for you to actually say what you mean, and or the other person to understand it as well…

The 6 Walls You Need to Break Down to Make Communication Effective

Think about it this way, a simple phrase like “what do you mean” can be said in many different ways and each different way would end up “communicating” something else entirely. Scream it at the other person, and the perception would be anger. Whisper this is someone’s ear and others may take it as if you were plotting something. Say it in another language, and no one gets what you mean at all, if they don’t speak it… This is what we mean when we say that talking or saying something that’s clear in your head, many not mean that you have successfully communicated it across to your intended audience – thus what you say and how, where and why you said it – at times become barriers to communication.[1]

Perceptual Barrier

The moment you say something in a confrontational, sarcastic, angry or emotional tone, you have set up perceptual barriers to communication. The other person or people to whom you are trying to communicate your point get the message that you are disinterested in what you are saying and sort of turn a deaf ear. In effect, you are yelling your point across to person who might as well be deaf![2]

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The problem: When you have a tone that’s not particularly positive, a body language that denotes your own disinterest in the situation and let your own stereotypes and misgivings enter the conversation via the way you talk and gesture, the other person perceives what you saying an entirely different manner than say if you said the same while smiling and catching their gaze.

The solution: Start the conversation on a positive note, and don’t let what you think color your tone, gestures of body language. Maintain eye contact with your audience, and smile openly and wholeheartedly…

Attitudinal Barrier

Some people, if you would excuse the language, are simply badass and in general are unable to form relationships or even a common point of communication with others, due to their habit of thinking to highly or too lowly of them. They basically have an attitude problem – since they hold themselves in high esteem, they are unable to form genuine lines of communication with anyone. The same is true if they think too little of themselves as well.[3]

The problem: If anyone at work, or even in your family, tends to roam around with a superior air – anything they say is likely to be taken by you and the others with a pinch, or even a bag of salt. Simply because whenever they talk, the first thing to come out of it is their condescending attitude. And in case there’s someone with an inferiority complex, their incessant self-pity forms barriers to communication.

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The solution: Use simple words and an encouraging smile to communicate effectively – and stick to constructive criticism, and not criticism because you are a perfectionist. If you see someone doing a good job, let them know, and disregard the thought that you could have done it better. It’s their job so measure them by industry standards and not your own.

Language Barrier

This is perhaps the commonest and the most inadvertent of barriers to communication. Using big words, too much of technical jargon or even using just the wrong language at the incorrect or inopportune time can lead to a loss or misinterpretation of communication. It may have sounded right in your head and to your ears as well, but if sounded gobbledygook to the others, the purpose is lost.

The problem: Say you are trying to explain a process to the newbies and end up using every technical word and industry jargon that you knew – your communication has failed if the newbie understood zilch. You have to, without sounding patronizing, explain things to someone in the simplest language they understand instead of the most complex that you do.

The solution: Simplify things for the other person to understand you, and understand it well. Think about it this way: if you are trying to explain something scientific to a child, you tone it down to their thinking capacity, without “dumbing” anything down in the process.[4]

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Emotional Barrier

Sometimes, we hesitate in opening our mouths, for fear of putting our foot in it! Other times, our emotional state is so fragile that we keep it and our lips zipped tightly together lest we explode. This is the time that our emotions become barriers to communication.[5]

The problem: Say you had a fight at home and are on a slow boil, muttering, in your head, about the injustice of it all. At this time, you have to give someone a dressing down over their work performance. You are likely to transfer at least part of your angst to the conversation then, and talk about unfairness in general, leaving the other person stymied about what you actually meant!

The solution: Remove your emotions and feelings to a personal space, and talk to the other person as you normally would. Treat any phobias or fears that you have and nip them in the bud so that they don’t become a problem. And remember, no one is perfect.

Cultural Barrier

Sometimes, being in an ever-shrinking world means that inadvertently, rules can make cultures clash and cultural clashes can turn into barriers to communication. The idea is to make your point across without hurting anyone’s cultural or religious sentiments.

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The problem: There are so many ways culture clashes can happen during communication and with cultural clashes; it’s not always about ethnicity. A non-smoker may have problems with smokers taking breaks; an older boss may have issues with younger staff using the Internet too much.

The solution: Communicate only what is necessary to get the point across – and eave your personal sentiments or feelings out of it. Try to be accommodative of the other’s viewpoint, and in case you still need to work it out, do it one to one, to avoid making a spectacle of the other person’s beliefs.[6]

Gender Barrier

Finally, it’s about Men from Mars and Women from Venus. Sometimes, men don’t understand women and women don’t get men – and this gender gap throws barriers in communication. Women tend to take conflict to their graves, literally, while men can move on instantly. Women rely on intuition, men on logic – so inherently, gender becomes a big block in successful communication.[7]

The problem: A male boss may inadvertently rub his female subordinates the wrong way with anti-feminism innuendoes, or even have problems with women taking too many family leaves. Similarly, women sometimes let their emotions get the better of them, something a male audience can’t relate to.

The solution: Talk to people like people – don’t think or classify them into genders and then talk accordingly. Don’t make comments or innuendos that are gender biased – you don’t have to come across as an MCP or as a bra-burning feminist either. Keep gender out of it.

And remember, the key to successful communication is simply being open, making eye contact and smiling intermittently. The battle is usually half won when you say what you mean in simple, straightforward words and keep your emotions out of it.

Reference

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