The HTWB Agony ColumnsDear HTWB Agony Columns
I’ve just joined a very traditionally-minded firm that still sends out formal business letters to clients. They expect me to know how to set them out as well as write them. What’s the right way to go about this?
Julia from Manchester, UK
Hi Julia! I know, formal business letters seem to be very old-fashioned in these days of modern communication but they are still used – and needed – in a number of businesses and professions.
Here are some guidelines you might find useful, culled from my book “Business Writing Made Easy.” I’ve shared the whole section from my book so this is going to be more of a tutorial rather than a blog post, but I hope you – and everyone else who needs to write conventional business letters – find this helpful despite it being longer than your average blog post!
Here we go…
Many people in business heaved a sigh of relief when email began to take over most of their day-to-day correspondence. Processing business letters – even today – is fiddly and fussy, compared with the blissful simplicity of email.
However as you know there are still times when ink on paper is essential. Many of the so-called “professions” (legal, accountancy, etc) in the UK at least still insist on correspondence being done via printed letters. They have a deep mistrust of email and for good reason, as its confidentiality can never be guaranteed. Business letters are at least fairly private – you have to assume it’s easier and faster to snoop on email than it is to steam envelopes open over boiling water.
In other instances, too, printed letters provide a more tamper-proof formal record of business arrangements, complaints, employee warnings/terminations and other issues that need to be carved into tablets of stone. (Well, paper, anyway.)
Old fashioned structure, modern style
Highlighted and ridiculed by the casual nature of email, the quaint formality of the old fashioned business letter seems positively Dickensian and totally inappropriate for the way we do business now.
There is an answer, though. Use the formality of structure that makes the business letter the bullet-proof form of communication it has come to be. Combine that with the short, straight-talking style of writing more common to emails, and you have a good compromise.
Let’s start with the structure – or rather, the etiquette which supplies the structure.
There are variations between accepted etiquette used in the different English language markets. Here are the main British forms of address. I have also included the US/Canadian equivalents where I know them, but I’m afraid I’m not aware of those used in Australia, NZ or SA.
The addressee will either be a title, e.g. “The Chief Executive Officer” or to an organization or company when you don’t know to whom your letter should be addressed. When you write to a title the salutation is “Dear Sir,” “Dear Madam,” or if you want to play it safe, “Dear Sir/Madam.” When you write to an organization it’s “Dear Sirs,” Dear “Mesdames,” or again if you want to play it safe (but labor the point) “Dear Sirs/Mesdames.”
Your sign off will be “Yours faithfully” (UK) or “Yours truly” (US and Canada.)
Less formal letters
This is where you have a name. And this is where you can get into hot water if you’re not sure of the gender of the person. Someone called J C Jennings could be a Jack or a Joanna. Someone called Leslie Matthews could also be either (traditionally the female version of the name is spelled “Lesley” and the male “Leslie,” but I know at least one lady Leslie.)
Equally beware of unisex names like Jody, Jo, Bobbie, Alex, Rob, Robin, Carol (yes, really,) Billie, Chris, Darryl, Eddie, Sam, Jackie, Nicky, Frances (f) vs Francis (m), Freddie, Gabrielle (f) vs Gabriel (m), Georgie, Gerry/Jerry, Charlie, Nat, Harry, Jessie (f) vs Jesse (m), Stevie, Mel, Pat, Ronnie, Sacha, Sandy, etc. And that’s before we get started on names from non English-language cultures.
People these days usually don’t advertise whether they’re “Mr” or “Ms” or whatever. When in doubt don’t risk embarrassment; phone the organization concerned and ask.
Some people borrow an awful technique from email and use a person’s whole name in the salutation, e.g. “Dear Suzan St Maur.” I don’t know about you, but this irritates the h*ll out of me and I would not recommend it.
So, when your letter is addressed to “Mr J C Jennings” your salutation is “Dear Mr Jennings.” If the information you have is simply “Joanna C Jennings” you can probably take a chance and write a salutation of “Dear Ms Jennings.” I don’t know any male Joannas, but don’t take my word for it…
Your sign off will be “Yours sincerely.”
Even less formal letters
This is where the internet’s influence can be allowed to come into it and give you some freedom from the formalities expected in, well, more formal letters.
If you’re writing to someone whom you know on first name terms then your salutation is going to be “Dear (name)” and you don’t need to sign off with a “yours” anything unless you particularly want to. Common forms of sign off include “warm regards” (US,) “kind regards,” “best wishes,” etc.
This isn’t as strictly followed as it used to be, and now it’s considered OK to design the layout of a letter around the design of the company letterhead. The elements you need, wherever you put them, should include:
- Your company name and address (usually done in the letterhead’s design)
- The date
- The addressee’s name, title, company name and address
- The salutation (“dear so-and-so”)
- The topic of the letter (“re:” whatever)
- The body of the letter
- The sign off (“Yours whatever”)
- Your own name and title
Traditionally, your own address should go at the top right of the letter, with the date underneath it on the right. On the next line at the left margin, you put the addressee’s name and address. After one or two spaces, the “Dear (whoever)” goes underneath that. Two spaces below that, you can put your “re: (topic)” or just the topic in bold and/or underlined.
Help - help me write good formal business letters in my new jobOnce you’ve done the body of the letter, create one or two spaces and put the sign-off either ranged left or indented a few tabs along towards the right. Create a sufficient number of spaces for your signature and then key in your name (and title if appropriate) so it starts directly under the “Y” of “Yours.”
If your letter goes on to a second page, where it breaks on page 1 create a space then to the right key in “cont’d.” You can start page 2 just by keying in “page 2” and starting again two or three spaces below. Some people create a mini-heading for the second page with the addressee’s name on the left, the date in the middle, and the page number on the right, followed by an underline that crosses the whole page. This is useful if the two pages become detached from one another.
Okay. Now we’ve established the ground rules, what do we say?
Keep the style sharp and simple
Business letters are not a literary art form. They are verbal workhorses with a purpose only to convey information, and what you want the reader to do with it, as quickly and clearly as possible.
Start by making notes as if to yourself. These notes will come out in a direct style naturally, because you’re not intimidated or disquieted when writing to yourself. Don’t restrict yourself to a structure at this stage. Just write out everything you can think of that should go into the letter.
Now, match your notes to the sequence in one of the “skeletons” described below. Discard any notes that aren’t relevant.
If you build up your letter along these lines you’ll find that your style is clear and straightforward, with no unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, business phrases, “corporate speak” or other business BS that some people use in business letters.
All you need to do then is tidy up with a good edit and spelling and grammar check. (Although many people take a lenient view over spelling and grammatical mistakes in emails, they stick out like sore thumbs in printed letters and make you look very amateurish.)
Build your content on a “skeleton”
Normally you’ll identify the topic of the letter with “re: Your Outstanding Account” or less formally, “Your Outstanding Account” in bold and/or underlined. Then make notes or bullet points of the main issues you need to include, on a skeleton like this:
Typically, these would be:
I see from our records that you were first invoiced for this amount four months ago and statements have been sent out to you each month since then
2. The sticky issue
This can’t go on, especially as you haven’t contacted us to discuss extending your credit
3. What I want to happen now
Pay up in the next seven days
4. Or else
We will be obliged to start legal proceedings against you
If you do pay up by return, we won’t take any further action and will restart your 30 days’ credit as before
6. Next move
Please contact me urgently and let me know what you intend to do
Same skeleton, different content
You could use this skeleton for a number of business letter purposes. Not all business letters have you sitting so comfortably in the driving seat, however. Let’s say you were the recipient of this letter and want to winkle out more time to pay. The elements remain the same, but we approach from a different angle…
Thank you for bringing this to my attention – I had no idea we were so late paying
2. The sticky issue
We’re experiencing serious cashflow problems at the moment but we have taken steps to rectify this and anticipate the problem will be solved in the next 3 weeks
3. What I want to happen now
Would you consider extending our credit for a while longer, perhaps with interest being chargeable at a rate we can agree?
4. Or else
We really would like to continue buying our supplies from you but if we enter into a dispute the goodwill will be lost and our business relationship will be over
I can assure you our cashflow problem is temporary and we want to preserve our business relationship with you if possible
6. Next move
I will phone you in the next few days to discuss payment terms
Build your own skeleton
Obviously that 6-point skeleton isn’t going to work for every business letter, but a shortened version of it will be useful because you can build it back up so it’s tailored to any number of different needs. Here’s the basic one that I use:
2. The key issue
3. What will or should happen
4. What to do next
Any further tips? Only that business letters should always be as short as possible. That’s not as simple as it sounds. Somebody famous (can’t remember who) once apologized for writing someone a long letter, as he didn’t have time to write a short one. It’s hard to write concisely, but if you use the style and skeleton tips above you’ll find it somewhat easier.
If you need to go into detail, separate that off into a different (but attached) document and use the letter only as a summary of the issue and a call to action.
I’m no social psychologist so I can’t quote you a scientific reason, but separating detail from key points usually means that both get read more thoroughly. It’s probably because by separating the two elements you provide readers with more digestible looking chunks. Anyway, it works!
Do you agree that these formats work for modern-day business letters? Please share your views here.
While you’re here, don’t forget to stop by my Bookshop…books and eBooks to help you write better – and to give to friends and family (don’t forget the Holiday Season is coming soon)…
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