Writing for Businessby Steve Roche
Writing business letters
When to write a letter
A letter may be needed, rather than an email or a phone call, when:
- organisational culture requires it
- an audit trail is needed
- communicating with someone who is not online
- it is part of a legal process or formal protocol
- you need proof that the person has received it.
This includes: the recruitment process (especially as regards contracts), disciplinary procedures, complaints (from customers or staff), contracts with suppliers and customers, and confirming agreements made on the phone.
Letters are usually required for formal notifications to employees, such as sickness and absence, return to work, competency and performance management matters, redundancy, appraisals, dismissal proceedings, grievances and tribunals, organisation announcements, organisational and group communications and union notices.
A letter can be a way for a manager to maintain authority when sorting out a complex or inflamed situation, and to keep messages clean and clear when people are being obstructive, either deliberately or through lack of awareness.
Letters are not just for bad news! Look for reasons to use them positively, such as changes in working practice, pay rises, increase in annual leave, employee of the month announcements, congratulating someone for achieving an award, or supporting someone through a difficult time. A letter shows you have taken time and trouble and given it individual attention.
Important facts or proposals can be conveyed in a formal letter on headed notepaper which is sent by email in the interests of speed. Although email has become the standard way for people in large organisations to communicate, problems arise in some offices from people’s unwillingness to read their email messages. It may be prudent to send confirmation by post of anything that is significant.
There are times when only an old-fashioned letter will do. When it comes to salary or disciplinary issues, a certain formality is required. That means writing letters, with copies for filing, and sending them in sealed envelopes.
If you need to address just one person, it can be hard to decide whether a memo or a letter is more appropriate. The answer should depend on the nature of the content. Good or neutral news sits well in a memo. But if you feel you need to write Dear Chris and sign it, then it has to be a letter.
A thoughtful touch is to top and tail a word-processed letter in your own hand. Write in Dear Chris at the top and a suitably personal leave-taking at the bottom. Never type Dear and add the name by hand, though. This sends the worst of all possible signals, as it implies a production-line approach coupled with a database that can’t quite manage to deliver the name you need.
With letters, there is a distinction to be drawn between internal and external correspondence. As a general rule, you don’t have to be quite so formal when writing to colleagues.
People prefer to be addressed by name rather than Dear Sir or Dear Madam, and react with understandable hostility to Dear Sir or Madam, which suggests inefficiency and bureaucracy.
Address the letter to Mr Chris Bloggs, or Ms Chris Bloggs unless she specifies Mrs or Miss. If you don’t have a first name or anything else to indicate gender, then it has to be plain C Bloggs. Although you’ll probably use first names during a first telephone conversation, many people feel it is over-familiar in a letter. Don’t begin Dear Chris unless you know him or her well. If gender is unspecified, write Dear Chris Bloggs.
You can often tell the gender from the first name. But watch out for Chris, Jan, Francis and Frances, Joe and Jo, Leslie and Lesley, Tony and Toni. Be careful with names from other cultures, especially those which may seem ‘back to front’. If in doubt, check how they refer to themselves.
If it’s a formal business letter, or your correspondent has already addressed you in formal terms, then start Dear Sir and end Yours faithfully. It is easy to progress to Dear Mr, but less easy to backtrack to Dear Sir – which might imply a snub. End with Yours sincerely if you know the name of the person. Yours truly is an acceptable alternative.
Use first names with employees – you don’t have to change to Mr just because it is a formal letter. Outside your organisation, use Mr, if this is a first exchange, or Chris, if you have already had contact.
Be careful with your signature. If it’s C. J. Bloggs the recipient doesn’t know what sex you are. Even if you sign Christine Bloggs, they don’t know if it’s Mrs or Miss. So it’s best to put Mrs Christine Bloggs. This avoids creating a problem for the person replying to your letter, who won’t want to use the dreadful Dear Sir or Madam, and would regard Dear C J Bloggs as rather rude. If you are faced with this dilemma, the most elegant solution is Dear Mr/s Bloggs.
Be clear what you want to communicate. Start with the outcome and objective: why am I writing this letter? If you have trouble getting started, bullet point a skeleton first. Ask yourself what you want the reader to know, feel or understand once they’ve read the letter. Make it clear what action is required and how it will be followed up.
If the content of your letter is contentious or involves you emotionally, leave it for a day or so and re-read before sending, and/or get someone else to check it. If it’s written on behalf of the organisation and there are legal implications then take advice, perhaps from HR or a legal specialist.
Keep the writing simple (short words and sentences) when English is not the recipient’s first language. Check spelling and grammar, and be particularly careful that you have the correct spelling for name and address – otherwise you risk annoying the recipient and giving the wrong messages... or even losing business.
Put the date at the top and your contact details at the bottom. If this is a follow-up letter it is helpful to refer to the previous correspondence by using ‘Re: xxxxxx xxxxx’ as a heading. If possible, keep to one page: if there’s a page break make sure it’s in an appropriate place. Keep a copy. Check with HR about organisational standards and procedures – is there a standard letter?
If you use a secretary check their level of skill and knowledge before relying on them. Perhaps ask the secretary to draft a letter which you finish. Or vice versa, depending on your own skills and experience.
If the letter is in your name, it is you who is accountable, so you need safeguards in place. Be careful who you allow to pp for you (see Abbreviations below). If you include other papers with your letter, say ‘I enclose your contract with this letter, please sign and return to me.’ Put Enc: at the end and list the enclosed papers as a check that they are all included, especially if you are using a secretary or if it is a complicated matter.
Think about who to copy to. Who else needs to read the letter? Who doesn’t? Don’t get involved in using copied letters in power games. It can be helpful to put a cc list at the end, so it’s visible who else has seen this letter, and in case the recipient needs to contact the cc’ed people. This is something that happens automatically with an email, but needs to be explicit in a letter. Beware of leaving things out that would happen ‘naturally’ with email (such as the date!)
Here is a sample layout for a business letter:
Aim to strike a balance between the informal style of an email, and old-fashioned over-formal business prose. Aim for clarity, with language that is straightforward, unambiguous and non-offensive:
- ‘Thank you for your letter dated 15 June.’
- ‘I am writing to you about the matter you raised with Chris Bloggs of our Customer Relations department...’
- ‘The company is now willing to make you the offer laid out below.’
- ‘Following your meeting with Mrs Bloggs, the next stage is...’
- ‘I’m writing to summarise the actions needed to complete...’
Summarise in the first sentence what the letter is about. Is it the beginning of a communication or the end? Are you specifically inviting a reply? Who should they contact if they are not sure about something? (It might not be you.) Be clear about what action is required and when: ‘Please reply to this office by June 15.’
Sometimes in business we have to do tough things, but we can still be positive and show humanity to keep people engaged, by using phrases like:
- ‘Thank you for coming in and being so straightforward and honest..’
- ‘I appreciate your commitment to the process and I understand it is difficult for you...’
Put yourself in the shoes of the person receiving your letter – how would you feel? What response do you want from them – to send a nasty letter back? to be fed up and not bother? or to do what you have asked?
If your letters include expressions like ‘Please be informed,’ ‘Kindly be advised,’ ‘I would like to bring to your attention’ and ‘I am writing to advise you’, then you are not doing yourself or your organisation any favours – and you are certainly not helping your readers.
Instead of ‘I should be very grateful’ we should simply say ‘Please.’ Use short words like buy, try, start and end instead of purchase, endeavour, commence and terminate. With commas, the rule is now less rather than more. Use short words, simple expressions, short sentences and short paragraphs that are clear and concise, instead of long-winded old-fashioned jargon that is sure to confuse.
Avoid using standard clichés, such as ‘Enclosed herewith please find our catalogue for your reference and perusal,’ ‘Below-mentioned please note,’ ‘With reference to your above-mentioned order,’ ‘Should you require any further clarification please do not hesitate to contact me’.
Today’s business language should be proactive, stimulating and interesting, and it should reflect your own personality. Instead of using phrases that have been around for decades, write in a natural style as if you are having a conversation. Ask yourself ‘If I were speaking to the recipient, would I say this?’ and if you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it!
Avoid openings such as ‘We respectfully suggest...’, or ‘Referring to the attached...’. Beware of pomposity: ‘We beg to advise...’, ‘The position with regard to...’, ‘Allow me to say in this instance...’, ‘The undersigned/the writer...’, ‘Dispatched under separate cover...’. Avoid clichéd endings: ‘Thanking you in advance...’, ‘Awaiting a favourable reply...’, ‘Trusting we will be favoured with your business.’
The following abbreviations are widely used in business letters:
- cc = carbon copy (when you send a copy of a letter to more than one person, use this abbreviation to let them know)
- enc = enclosure (when you include other papers with your letter)
- pp = per procurationem (A Latin phrase meaning you are signing the letter on somebody else’s behalf; if they are not there to sign it themselves) for example
- PS = postscript (when you want to add something after you’ve finished and signed it)
- PTO (informal) = please turn over (to make sure that the other person knows the letter continues on the other side of the page)
- RSVP = please reply (from the French phrase, ‘répondez, s’il vous plaît,’)