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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 September 12, 2019

12 Things You Should Remember When Feeling Lost in Life

12 Things You Should Remember When Feeling Lost in Life

Even the most charismatic people you know, whether in person or celebrities of some sort, experience days where they feel lost in life and isolated from everyone else.

While it’s good to know we aren’t alone in this feeling, the question still remains:

What should we do when we feel lost and lonely?

Here are 12 things to remember:

1. Recognize That It’s Okay!

The truth is, there are times you need to be alone. If you’ve always been accustomed to being in contact with people, this may prove difficult.

However, learning how to be alone and comfortable in your own skin will give you confidence and a sense of self reliance.

We cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to become self reliant when we look for constant companionship.

Learn how to embrace your me time: What Your Fear of Being Alone Is Really About and How to Get over It

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2. Use Your Lost and Loneliness as a Self-Directing Guide

You’ve most likely heard the expression: “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”

Loneliness also serves as a life signal to indicate you’re in search of something. It’s when we’re in the midst of solitude that answers come from true soul searching.

Remember, there is more to life than what you’re feeling.

3. Realize Loneliness Helps You Face the Truth

Being in the constant company of others, although comforting sometimes, can often serve as a distraction when we need to face the reality of a situation.

Solitude cuts straight to the chase and forces you to deal with the problem at hand. See it as a blessing that can serve as a catalyst to set things right!

4. Be Aware That You Have More Control Than You Think

Typically, when we see ourselves as being lost or lonely, it gives us an excuse to view everything we come in contact with in a negative light. It lends itself to putting ourselves in the victim mode, when the truth of the matter is that you choose your attitude in every situation.

No one can force a feeling upon you! It is YOU who has the ultimate say as to how you choose to react.

5. Embrace the Freedom That the Feeling of Being Alone Can Offer

Instead of wallowing in self pity, which many are prone to do because of loneliness, try looking at your circumstance as a new-found freedom.

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Most people are in constant need of approval of their viewpoints. Try enjoying the fact that  you don’t need everyone you care about to support your decisions.

6. Acknowledge the Person You Are Now

Perhaps you feel a sense of loneliness and confusion because your life circumstances have taken you away from the persona that others know to be you.

Perhaps the new you differs radically from the old. Realize that life is about change and how we react to that change. It’s okay that you’re not who you used to be.

Take a look at this article and learn to accept your imperfect self: Accept Yourself (Flaws and All): 7 Benefits of Being Vulnerable

7. Keep Striving to Do Your Best

Often those who are feeling isolated and unto themselves will develop a defeatist attitude. They’ll do substandard work because their self esteem is low and they don’t care.

Never let this feeling take away your sense of worth! Do your best always and when you come through this dark time, others will admire how you stayed determined in spite of the obstacles you had to overcome.

And to live your best life, you must do this ONE thing: step out of your comfort zone.

8. Don’t Forget That Time Is Precious

When we’re lost in a sea of loneliness and depression, it’s all too easy to reflect on regrets of past life events. This does nothing but feed negativity and perpetuate the situation.

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Instead of falling prey to this common pitfall, put one foot in front of the other and acknowledge every positive step you take. By doing this, you can celebrate the struggles you overcome at the end of the day.

9. Remember, Things Happen for a Reason

Every circumstance we encounter in our life is designed to teach us and that lesson is in turn passed on to others.

Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to figure out the lesson to be learned, while other times, we simply need to have faith that if the lesson wasn’t meant directly for us to learn from, how we handled it was observed by someone who needed to learn.

Your solitude and feeling of lost, in this instance, although painful possibly, may be teaching someone else.

10. Journal During This Time

Record your thoughts when you’re at the height of loneliness and feeling lost. You’ll be amazed when you reflect back at how you viewed things at the time and how far you’ve come later.

This time (if recorded) can give you a keen insight into who you are and what makes you feel the way you feel.

11. Remember You Aren’t the First to Feel This Way

It’s quite common to feel as if we’re alone and no one else has ever felt this way before. We think this because at the time of our distress, we’re silently observing others around us who are seemingly fine in every way.

The truth is, we can’t possibly know the struggles of those around us unless they elect to share them. We ALL have known this pain!

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Try confiding in someone you trust and ask them how they deal with these feelings when they experienced it. You may be surprised at what you learn.

12. Ask for Help If the Problem Persists

The feeling of being lost and lonely is common to everyone, but typically it will last for a relatively short period of time.

Most people will confess to, at one time or another, being in a “funk.” But if the problem persists longer than you feel it should, don’t ignore it.

When your ability to reason and consider things rationally becomes impaired, do not poo poo the problem away and think it isn’t worthy of attention. Seek medical help.

Afraid to ask for help? Here’s how to change your outlook to aim high!

Final Thoughts

Loneliness and a sense of feeling lost can in many ways be extremely painful and difficult to deal with at best. However, these feelings can also serve as a catalyst for change in our lives if we acknowledge them and act.

Above anything, cherish your mental well being and don’t underestimate its worth. Seek professional guidance if you’re unable to distinguish between a sense of freedom for yourself and a sense of despair.

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Featured photo credit: Andrew Neel via unsplash.com

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