How to Write a Business Letter
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.
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 questionable. 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 10 minutes of her 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, or 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, 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, so 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 get 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, which totally undercuts the reason you’re writing a letter. So, don’t follow formulas.
What letters have in common is the need to look good. They may be delivered electronically and can even be signed online in most legal situations today. But in many cases they should look like a letter, not an email. Check out the sidebar “Formatting your letters” for a basic format to customize to each occasion.
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? Many people do. Letters relating to our professional lives can have different but nevertheless strong associations, especially if they make you feel good. A physical letter is real and tangible and permanent in a way that an email is not.
We’ve gotten accustomed to the fact a digital message is fleeting, that most photographs viewed on our smartphones are rarely printed, and that social messages that take a lot of time to create are meant to disappear forever in a few minutes. This makes a meaningful communication you can hold onto even more valued.
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.