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How to Write a Formal Letter

How to Write a Formal Letter


    Most everyday writing is casual. Tweets, Facebook updates, holiday cards, friendly emails — these have their own simple etiquette, and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them before we lick that stamp or hit send.

    Sometimes, though, the occasion calls for something more formal. Whether it’s a letter to your political representative about an important issue, a cover letter to a potential boss, or a business proposal letter, these require a bit more care if you’re going to be taken seriously. As a lawyer, I write many formal letters each week, and there is an art to doing it well. Here are a few points to keep in mind when you’re writing your own formal letter, whether it will go through the mail or via cyberspace.

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    1. Understand your purpose.

    Why are you writing? What do you want the reader to do after reading your letter? Do you want to change her mind or convince him to take a specific action? Are you seeking forgiveness? Do you mean to complain about bad service or a faulty product? Are you trying to get hired? What’s the “ask”?

    Once you know this, you can — and should — cut everything out that doesn’t serve that purpose.

    2. Identify your audience.

    Knowing your audience helps you choose your language and target your ideas more precisely. I write differently in a letter to another lawyer than I do when the addressee is a non-lawyer executive or even an elderly “pro bono” client. In a letter to the editor, your real audience is the publication’s readers—who are they? (Keep in mind that most newspapers are written at an 8th or 9th grade reading level.) Don’t use jargon that your reader won’t understand.

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    3. Keep it short.

    Most of us endure a constant flood of written communications, and we have a limited amount of time to spend reading it. You therefore have a better chance of being read if you keep your letter to one page. A multi-page letter with long paragraphs and complex sentences looks overwhelming. The busy reader will be tempted to set it aside for when she has more time—and she might never get around to picking it up again. Use short paragraphs, short sentences, short words.

    4. Use simple language.

    It’s the writer’s job to be understood. Even if your audience is highly educated, you should avoid big words and long, complex sentences. People aren’t stupid; they’re busy. Make our job easier, and we’re more likely to give your letter the attention it deserves. Formal writing does not require the use of big words. Don’t try to sound sophisticated; try to be clear. Use “ask” instead of “request.” Say “buy” instead of “purchase.” Instead of “enclosed herewith please find,” just say, “I’ve enclosed” or “Here is. . . .”

    5. Lead with the most important point.

    As journalists say, don’t bury your lead. Find a way to open with the idea or information that you most want your reader to focus or act on. The first paragraph might be the only one he reads, so don’t hide the “ask” in the last paragraph.

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    6. Follow the rules.

    There are rules for formatting a business letter. You ignore them at your peril.

    7. Proofread. Then proofread again.

    No matter how grammatically gifted you are, errors and typos can creep in. When you think you’ve finished writing, read your piece slowly and attentively, watching for those typos. Don’t trust spellcheck. If possible, print a hard copy of your letter and read it—out loud—with a pen in hand, marking those typos, awkward sentences, confusing lines. If it’s really important, have somebody else read it and let you know if you’ve missed something.

    8. Let it cool before sending.

    Especially if you are writing to persuade or complain, you probably are motivated by some pretty strong feelings. Absolutely write your first draft in the white-hot heat of passion. Express your feelings. Get it all on paper. But then . . . before you print and sign, or hit send, walk away for awhile. Go do something else. Let that heat of passion cool. Then come back and re-read what you’ve written. Is it fair? Is it smart? Is it true? Is it kind? Would you regret having it read on television, in front of your boss and your grandmother? Make the changes that seem appropriate after your emotions have settled.

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    Then, and only then, hit send.

    What have I missed? What is your stickiest communication challenge? Your questions and suggestions are invited.

    (Photo credit: Signature via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on December 2, 2018

    7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

    7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

    When giving a presentation or speech, you have to engage your audience effectively in order to truly get your point across. Unlike a written editorial or newsletter, your speech is fleeting; once you’ve said everything you set out to say, you don’t get a second chance to have your voice heard in that specific arena.

    You need to make sure your audience hangs on to every word you say, from your introduction to your wrap-up. You can do so by:

    1. Connecting them with each other

    Picture your typical rock concert. What’s the first thing the singer says to the crowd after jumping out on stage? “Hello (insert city name here)!” Just acknowledging that he’s coherent enough to know where he is is enough for the audience to go wild and get into the show.

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    It makes each individual feel as if they’re a part of something bigger. The same goes for any public speaking event. When an audience hears, “You’re all here because you care deeply about wildlife preservation,” it gives them a sense that they’re not just there to listen, but they’re there to connect with the like-minded people all around them.

    2. Connect with their emotions

    Speakers always try to get their audience emotionally involved in whatever topic they’re discussing. There are a variety of ways in which to do this, such as using statistics, stories, pictures or videos that really show the importance of the topic at hand.

    For example, showing pictures of the aftermath of an accident related to drunk driving will certainly send a specific message to an audience of teenagers and young adults. While doing so might be emotionally nerve-racking to the crowd, it may be necessary to get your point across and engage them fully.

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    3. Keep going back to the beginning

    Revisit your theme throughout your presentation. Although you should give your audience the credit they deserve and know that they can follow along, linking back to your initial thesis can act as a subconscious reminder of why what you’re currently telling them is important.

    On the other hand, if you simply mention your theme or the point of your speech at the beginning and never mention it again, it gives your audience the impression that it’s not really that important.

    4. Link to your audience’s motivation

    After you’ve acknowledged your audience’s common interests in being present, discuss their motivation for being there. Be specific. Using the previous example, if your audience clearly cares about wildlife preservation, discuss what can be done to help save endangered species’ from extinction.

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    Don’t just give them cold, hard facts; use the facts to make a point that they can use to better themselves or the world in some way.

    5. Entertain them

    While not all speeches or presentations are meant to be entertaining in a comedic way, audiences will become thoroughly engaged in anecdotes that relate to the overall theme of the speech. We discussed appealing to emotions, and that’s exactly what a speaker sets out to do when he tells a story from his past or that of a well-known historical figure.

    Speakers usually tell more than one story in order to show that the first one they told isn’t simply an anomaly, and that whatever outcome they’re attempting to prove will consistently reoccur, given certain circumstances.

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    6. Appeal to loyalty

    Just like the musician mentioning the town he’s playing in will get the audience ready to rock, speakers need to appeal to their audience’s loyalty to their country, company, product or cause. Show them how important it is that they’re present and listening to your speech by making your words hit home to each individual.

    In doing so, the members of your audience will feel as if you’re speaking directly to them while you’re addressing the entire crowd.

    7. Tell them the benefits of the presentation

    Early on in your presentation, you should tell your audience exactly what they’ll learn, and exactly how they’ll learn it. Don’t expect them to listen if they don’t have clear-cut information to listen for. On the other hand, if they know what to listen for, they’ll be more apt to stay engaged throughout your entire presentation so they don’t miss anything.

    Featured photo credit: Flickr via farm4.staticflickr.com

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