Business Writing For Dummies
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You may be under the impression that you don’t write business letters and never need to in today’s fast-paced world. Think again. You are probably writing letters without realizing it. Don’t be fooled by the fact that you’re using an electronic delivery system and don’t need a stamp. Acknowledge that your missive is a letter, and you do a much better job of achieving your goal.

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When something important is at stake, recognize that what you produce merits extra care in terms of its content, language and visual impression. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to find your old stationery. In many cases, it’s perfectly fine to send your letter as an email. In other instances, a physical letter serves you better. If you’re a nonprofit manager writing to elderly donors, for example, relying on email is risky. As always, consider your goal and audience in deciding on the best mode of delivery.

Here are some of the business-world occasions when you should think “Aha! This calls for a letter!”

  • Introducing yourself: If you’re the new veterinarian in town writing to the patient list, or need to explain why a VIP should give you ten minutes of their time, or why people should vote for you, you’re courting the reader and must make the best possible first impression in order to secure what you want.
  • Making a request: If you want a referral, a recommendation, an invitation, an informational interview, a special assignment, a corner office, a favor of any kind, write a letter.
  • Pitching something: If you sell a product or service, one effective way is with a sales letter, either via the post office or email. When you market anything, you must apply your best strategizing and writing.
  • Presenting formal applications: When you apply for a job, submit a proposal or compete for an educational opportunity, nine times out of ten, you need a cover letter. If it’s optional, leaving it out is a mistake. Sometimes the letter must accomplish the goal on its own—when a job posting specifies a letter and no résumé, for example.
  • Saying thank you, I’m sorry or expressing sympathy: Such messages are important and should be carefully personalized and meticulously written and presented. If they don’t look as if you have given thought to such a message and taken trouble, they don’t communicate that you care. A personal letter is much more effective than a greeting card.
  • Expressing appreciation: If someone gives you a wonderful break, takes a chance on you, offers significant advice or makes an introduction for you, a letter from you to that person will be treasured—trust me. People so rarely do this. And it’s worth considering a retrospective thank you to anyone in the past who inspired or helped you, too.
  • Congratulating someone: Supervisors, coworkers, subordinates, colleagues, suppliers—everyone welcomes a graceful congratulatory note when reaching a milestone or achieving something significant.
  • Documenting for legal purposes: Letters can be called for as official records in relation to job offers, agreements, performance reviews and warnings. These formal records may have legal implications now or in future. A binding contract can take the form of a simple-looking letter, so must be scrupulously written if you want them to protect you. And know what you’re agreeing to when sign those written by other people!
  • Seeking redress: If you have a complaint about a product or service, how you’ve been treated or how a print or digital publication has misrepresented you or your organization, to be taken seriously, write a letter.
  • Expressing opinions and concerns: Yes, Virginia, just as there is a Santa Claus, newspapers and other publications still run Letters to the Editor—and those editors know that this section is usually the most read feature of all. But it takes a good letter to be heard. Letters to local government and legislative offices reap a lot of attention, too.
  • Inspiring people to care: If you want friends and colleagues to actively support a cause you believe in, with money or time or connections, a letter bears much better testimony to the depth of your own commitment.
  • Valuing privacy: Letters carried by the postal system are privileged documents protected by the “secrecy of correspondence” principle. In many countries, it is illegal to open letters in transit. The privacy of digital communication remains murky, and you obviously risk disaster by communicating private information in an email or social post or text. Printed-and-delivered physical letters offer a last bastion of privacy.

If you search online, you’ll find a ton of prewritten and preformatted letters for every occasion. You may draw some ideas from them, but almost never will a cookie-cutter template work as well as your own well-crafted letter. Often the tone is wrong and the content is bland and impersonal. This totally undercuts the reason you’re writing a letter.

Therefore, I won’t give you a formula for every letter. Rather, I want to stimulate your imagination as to what a good letter can accomplish for you in your professional life and beyond. I have personally used this skill in situations ranging from a need to establish my (at the time, somewhat uncertain) credentials for a major purchase, build ongoing relationships with VIPs, and more than once, obtain a refund for a disappointing purchase or when a major deposit was withheld.

To show you the impact a letter can have, here are some actual examples with details altered). In each case, instead of leading you through the planning process that leads to a good message, I first give you the final product and then follow with the analysis.

Situation 1: You hear a major renovation is to commence on a house down the street—a peaceful, well-kept, private-feeling street where children play outside and residents share a community spirit. You find the following letter on your doorstep.

Dear Neighbor:

As you may be aware, the Bennet family will be venturing into a home renovation/addition project shortly.

As the family’s general contractor and representative, I wanted to take a moment of your time to introduce myself. My name is Allan James and for the most part, I, or one of my project managers, will be on site every day. Having completed numerous projects in the area over the years, I am familiar with the town and sensitive to the effects a project of this scope can have on the neighborhood.

It is my intention not only to deliver a quality, on-time project to my customer, but to ensure the least amount of impact to your environment. My subcontractors are very much aware of my expectations in regard to respect for your neighborhood, the town by-laws and the need for utmost common courtesy and respect.

It is inevitable that there may be some minor damage to the town-owned grass strips between the sidewalk and the street. Any such damage will be restored at the end of the project. To ensure that this occurs, a surety bond has been levied with the town.

Please feel free to contact me in person, by cell phone or email if some aspect of this project is affecting you adversely.

With best intentions,

Allan James, AIBD, CPBD, UCSL

President, AJ Builders, Inc.

How would you react as a resident? It’s hard to imagine a negative response. However, even though the business strategy is so effective, I have never seen or heard of another contractor taking the trouble to write and deliver such a letter but. Even if the idea does not seem relevant to you right now, notice how this letter aligns with the planning process, which is the heart of this book:

Goal: Smooth the way for a process that is naturally disruptive and forestall likely complaints.

Audience: Homeowners who fear damage to the street and a potential flood of unsupervised workers and subcontractors to the quiet neighborhood they value.

Content points: Communicate . . .

  • High sense of responsibility and caring as company owner
  • Active direction of workers and subcontractors
  • Knowledge of protective bylaws and commitment to them
  • Acknowledgment of probable damage and commitment to repair it
  • Ensurance of legal protection via surety bond
  • Credentialed company president (no matter what the acronyms stand for)
Accountability: Direct contact information is given in case of a problem (or should readers want to inquire about services for themselves!).

Tone: Low-key, respectful, sincere.

Why it works: The writer understands the neighbors’ worries based on their prior experiences with construction and directly addresses those fears. In doing so he generates trust: He makes the coming interaction personal. He reassures residents that he will respect the street they share and care about. But there’s more: The thoughtfulness of the letter conveys that this is a caring, capable and intelligent person who will do an excellent construction job. That’s the magic of what you can accomplish with good writing. Of course, the writer must follow through on all counts.

Outcome: Beyond accomplishing a collegial environment to work in and forestalling complaints, the contractor received several queries from other local homeowners who were inspired to pursue their own renovations.

Situation 2: Here’s an example of how good business writing carries over to non-work needs. You are relocating and have put your house on the market. Happily, you soon receive a number of offers that move over the asking price. You’re ready to accept the highest bid when this letter arrives:

Dear X:

My name is Donna Whitman and I am writing to you to express how important it is for me to purchase your lovely home. I have dreamt of living on a lake for more than 20 years. When I was transferred from Minneapolis to Charlotte this past year, I hoped to make my dream come true.

I have spent time with colleagues in the Arborville community and knew it would be exactly right for me. When I saw your home listed, I knew I had to see it! And when I walked in the door, I told Jim, my broker, that this was the home for me!

I love the location, layout and of course, the lake. My 15-year-old cat, Cappy, will also love your home. She will have so much happiness sitting with me on the splendid deck (her joints don’t allow her to sit on windowsills any more).

I’m excited that the dining-room set I inherited from my dear grandmother will fit perfectly. And I love that my parents will have a beautiful place to stay when they visit in March, should I be lucky enough to purchase 45 Lakewood.

I truly hope I will be chosen to be the new owner of your home and finally have my dream become a reality!

With the utmost sincerity and gratitude for your consideration,


As the seller, how would you react to receiving this letter? Donna may not consciously have followed the process I recommend for all your writing, but here is why it succeeds as a message.

Goal: To win the bid, without knowing what other offers were received.

Audience: Someone who has loved the home herself, apparent in its cared-for condition, furnishings and decoration.

Content: To accomplish this goal, with this reader in mind:

  • Personalize the interaction to stand out from other potential buyers.
  • Express high enthusiasm for the chance to live there.
  • Communicate appreciation for potentially being “chosen.”
These points are backed by citing specific benefits to the writer and communicate a personal vision—Cappy the arthritic cat on the deck . . . the beloved grandmother’s dining-room table in place . . . the happy visiting parents.

Tone: Enthusiasm!

I suspect your reaction in this scenario would be similar to the seller’s: a little skepticism at so much excitement, overridden by feeling gratified that her long-term home will be appreciated, enjoyed and cherished.

Outcome: The writer had not, in fact, made the highest offer, but the seller wanted her to have the house. Donna agreed to meet the slightly higher price of the offer above hers and everyone left the table feeling very good.

The point: Think about what well thought-out letters could accomplish in your own life. Adopt that mindset and the opportunities will come.

Consider at times the value of a real letter—the kind that you can hold in your hands, reread at will and keep with your important or treasured documents. Do you have a shoebox of letters that connect you with important events or people of your past personal life? Letters relating to our professional lives can also have strong associations for us, especially if they make us feel good. Digital messages are fleeting—some are even meant to disappear in a few minutes. But a physical letter is real and tangible and (relatively) permanent, like a photographic print.

I know several professional colleagues who make a habit of handwriting their messages to clients and other important connections on notepaper: thank you for the help or referral, happy holidays, happy birthday, congratulations on your award or your son’s graduation. These savvy professionals look for opportunities to write notes like these. Don’t laugh. When they visit these recipients’ offices and see these notes prominently displayed on the contact’s bulletin boards, the strategic value of this small effort is reinforced. These friends are all very successful.

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