A Well-Crafted Letter Still Gets the Job Done

Business letters aren’t a quaint thing of the past. Write them well, and you’ll create a lot of goodwill with clients, partners, and vendors. You’ll increase your profits, too — by getting key customers to renew large orders, for example, or persuading service providers to charge you less for repeat business.

Here are some pointers to help you get those kinds of results with your letters:

Focus on the reader. Motivate people to act by giving them reasons that matter to them. And try not to begin with the word I; make it you, if possible (You were so kind, You might be interested, and so on). Keep the reader in the forefront because — let’s face it — that’s what will hold her interest. Not: “I just thought I’d drop you a note to say that I really enjoyed my time as your guest last week.” But instead: “What a wonderful host you were last week.”

Use direct language. Write simply. Think of Olympic diving: neatly in, no splash, soon out. And if you’re writing on behalf of your firm, use we. It’s much warmer and friendlier than the passive voice (It has been decided vs. We have decided) or the impersonal third person (this organization vs. we).

You see canned phrases like enclosed please find and as per all the time in letters. They’re high-sounding but low-performing. Your letters will be much clearer and more engaging without them. Some examples:

pompousverbiage.gif
Ease into bad news. If you have a rejection to deliver, sandwich it between happier elements. Your readers can bear disappointment more easily if you begin on a genuine positive note and then explain the reason for the negative decision. They’ll also be more likely to grant your wishes — make a purchase, sign up for your webinar, renew a membership — despite your denying theirs.

Recipients of bad news will probably be unhappy no matter what. But to some extent you can control just how unhappy they’ll be. Be your best self. If your correspondent is rude, be polite; if anxious, be sympathetic; if confused, be lucid; if stubborn, be patient; if helpful, show gratitude; if accusatory, be reasonable and just in admitting any faults.

Don’t write in anger. Say please and thank you — even in letters of complaint. Omit such courtesies, and you’ll be dismissed as a crank. You can be courteous while still being direct.

When you receive unreasonable letters, don’t respond in kind. That just starts a negative chain reaction. Approach complaints with a dedication to first-rate service. Write with the same warmth and friendliness you’d use in face-to-face conversations. If you or your company made a mistake, avoid the temptation to ignore it, to cover it up, or to shift the blame. Instead of deceiving readers, you’ll provoke more ire. When you blunder, admit the error and say what you’ve done (or will be doing) to correct it. Stress the desire to improve service.

This is the second post in Bryan A. Garner’s blog series on business writing. The series draws on insights from Garner’s new book, the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

You’ll find the first post of the series here.

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