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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 18, 2020

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

1. Take a step back and evaluate

When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
  4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
  5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

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2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

4. Process your thoughts/emotions

Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

  1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
  2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
  3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
  4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

5. Acknowledge your thoughts

Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

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Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

6. Give yourself a break

If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

As Helen Keller once said,

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

  1. What’s the situation?
  2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
  3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
  4. Take action on your next steps!

After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

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12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

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