12 Points to remember when you write a business letter
1. Get the name of the person, if possible. People always respond better to a letter addressed to them, rather than to a generic “Dear Sir or Madam.”
You can find out by making a phone call, or by exploring a web page, but do make the effort.
Also, remember that if you are forced to use the generic term, either find out if the person is a Sir or Madam or use both. Never assume gender unless your intent is to insult!
2. Begin your letter with something of interest to your reader. Only your Mother or your sweetheart will be interested in a letter that begins with “I” – and then only if you say “I love you.” In addition, try to begin with a statement that sets a positive tone for the information to come.
Examples of a letter offering your services:
“Congratulations on the promotion!”
“Happy Anniversary! It’s been a year since _____, and…”
“Your letter arrived today, and …”
“You have every reason to be proud today, because …”
“Your property at ____ has appreciated _% since last year!”
“Your company is expanding and making its mark, so you may need…”
Example of a fund raising letter:
“Thank you for all the help you’ve given ___ in the past.”
“You’ve always been a friend of the animals, and now…”
Examples of a complaint letter:
“Your customer service has been impeccable – until now.”
“Seafresh Tuna has always been my choice, that’s why. when…”
“XYZ has always been the brand to rely on, so the current situation with
___ must be a fluke.”
3. Stick to one subject.
Don’t ramble on about everything and get your reader confused. If you’re
offering your services, do it. If you’re complaining about something that doesn’t work, stick to the problem at hand. Don’t rant on about other problems you’ve had in the past. If you have three reasons why they should agree with you, put them in a bulleted list.
4. Be concise. Make your point as clearly as possible with as few words as possible. The person reading your letter is busy and won’t respond well
if he or she has to wade through paragraph after paragraph to figure out what you want.
5. If you’re going to ask for something, try to get the reader on a roll with saying “Yes” or nodding in agreement. Ask questions you know will be answered positively or make statements that will evoke agreement.
“Would you like to double your income this year?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if your computer never went down?”
“Deadlines are important, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Some days there are too many tasks to fit into the
Keep this up throughout your letter, so by the time you’re ready to ask, your
reader is in an agreeable frame of mind – ready to agree with everything you say.
6. If you want something, ask for it clearly. Don’t leave the reader dangling. If you want to be considered for a job, say so. If you want them to try a product, tell them how to order and ASK for the order. If you want a donation, ask them to write a check and get it in the mail today. If you don’t ask, they won’t do.
7. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Even if you have a lot to say, don’t try to cram it all on one page. Keep your paragraphs to 4 lines if possible… 7 lines the absolute max!
I don’t know why it is, but people look at a big chunk of writing in a letter or on a web page and decide not to read. It looks like too much work! Make it easy to read your letter.
8. Add a P.S. Eye tracking studies show that people look first to see who the letter is addressed to, then glance at the headline, and then go to the end and look at the P.S. If everything they see there looks interesting, then they go back and read what’s in between. This is especially true of sales letters, where the price or the “ask” is often located at the end of the letter.
What does that mean? It means people are in a hurry and want to see if your letter is worth their time. They aren’t going to read every word unless you give them a powerful reason why and keep it interesting as you go along.
P.S. used to mean an after-thought. Now it is a well-considered addition to your letter. It might be something extra, such as a note that says “When
you call, be sure to ask for our free report on ___.”
You can also use that space to repeat an important point or to remind the reader of a deadline for a reply.
9. Forget most of what you learned in English class. Write the way you speak – the way other people speak. When you become too formal you sound
stiff and boring. I’m not saying to forget all the rules of grammar, but don’t worry if you have a dangling participle here and there. And don’t avoid beginning a sentence with “And.” Use words that sound natural.
10. Stay in the active voice. Passive voice is boring. If you mean to say “We toured the factory,” don’t say “The factory was toured by us.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But people do it all the time in writing.
Their effort to be proper backfires and puts their readers’ attention on the words instead of the meaning.
11. Use descriptive verbs and toss the adverbs whenever you can. Don’t say the car moved quickly when you can say the car sped.
12. Use nouns that paint a picture. Consider these: Car / Toyota / Corvette. How about Dog/Poodle/Pit Bull? Each paints a different picture
in your mind and conveys a great deal of information with just one word.
One more thing – the grammar that matters
No discussion of business writing can be complete without mention of some common word usage mistakes. These mistakes crop up everywhere –
both in print and on line – and they always reduce the writer’s credibility.
So, just in case you’ve been having trouble with these, here’s a short primer:
Your means something belonging to you (Here is your coat.)
You’re means “you are” (You’re a good friend.)
There means “over there” (Please park over there.)
Their means it belongs to them (They brought their spouses to the party.)
They’re means “they are” (They’re planning to dance all evening.)
When your reader notices these words misused, it stops the flow of your words, because the meaning is wrong. They have to stop and think about
what you meant, so they lose the train of thought you’ve worked hard to establish.
A good way to check your word usage before you send out a letter, or upload to a web page, is to use the Find feature under the Edit button in Word.
Simply type in each word and let the computer find it for you. Then stop and think about what you meant each time you used it.
Here’s one more glaring, common error: “Me and my friends…”
“Me” works as an object – at the end of a sentence, but never as the subject.
That means “Me and my friends are going to the store” is incorrect. The correct way to convey this idea is to say “My friends and I are going.”
For starters, putting yourself ahead of your friends is rude, but so is the word “me” at the beginning of a sentence. Here’s an easy way to see if you should use I or Me: Remove your friends.
Now say “Me are going to the store.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it? “Me is going” and “Me am going” sound pretty ridiculous too. (Cute when a 2-year old says it, but…)
Me is an object word. Use it in the context of “Hand that to me,” or “Call Sally for me.”
It comes after words like to, for, with, join, help, carry, call, etc. and it answers the question “Who?”
Conversely, “I” is always a subject, never an object. Its misuse is not as common, but I have seen it misused when combined with those troublesome friends. For example: “Please come to the movies with my friends and I.”
Use the same test – remove the friends and see how it sounds. You just wouldn’t say “Please come with I.”
Use the Find function to search for “I” and “me,” and check to make sure you’ve used them correctly before you print that letter or hit “send.”
Want to learn more about word usage and word choices in marketing?
Visit my Active Rain blog and read some of these articles.
And of course, any time you need help with ad writing, web copy, a better bio, brochures, postcards, or articles, get in touch!
I’m here to help.