Some Thoughts from Malcolm Forbes
A good business letter can get you a job interview.
Get you off the hook.
Or get you money.
It’s totally asinine to blow your chances of getting whatever you want – with a business letter that turns people off instead of turning them on.
The best place to learn to write is in school. If you’re still there, pick your teacher’s brains.
If not, big deal. I learned to ride a motorcycle at 50 and fly balloons at 52. It’s never too late to learn.
Over 10,000 business letters come across my desk every year.
They seem to fall into three categories: stultifying if not stupid, mundane (most of them), and first rate (rare). Here’s the approach.
I’ve found that separates the winners from the losers (most of it’s just good common sense) – it starts before you write your letter:
If you don’t, write it down – in one sentence. “I want to get an interview within the next two weeks.” That simple. List the major points you want to get across – it’ll keep you on course.
If you’re answering a letter, check the points that need answering and keep the letter in front of you while you write. This way you won’t forget anything – that would cause another round of letters.
And for goodness’ sake, answer promptly if you’re going to answer at all. Don’t sit on a letter – that invites the person on the order end to sit on whatever you want from him.
Plunge right in
Call him by name – not “Dear Sir, Madam, or Ms” “Dear Mr. Chrisanthopoulos” – and be sure to spell it right. That’ll get him (thus, you) off to a good start.
(Usually, you can get his name by phoning his company – or from business directory in your nearest library.)
Tell what your letter is about in the first paragraph. One or two sentences. Don’t keep your reader guessing or he might file your letter away – even before he finishes it.
In the round file.
If you’re answering a letter, refer to the date it was written. So the reader won’t waste time hunting for it.
People who read business letters are as human as thee and me. Reading a letter shouldn’t be a chore – reward the reader for the time he gives you.
Write so he'll enjoy it
Write the entire letter from his point of view – what’s in it for him? Beat him to the draw – surprise him by answering the questions and objections he might have.
Be positive – he’ll be more receptive to what you have to say.
Be nice. Contrary to the cliche, genuinely nice guys most often finish first or very near it. I admit it’s not easy when you’ve got a gripe. To be agreeable while disagreeing that’s an art.
Be natural – write the way you talk. Imagine him sitting in front of you – what would you say to him?
Business jargon too often is cold, stiff, unnatural.
Suppose I came up to you and said, “I acknowledge receipt of your letter and I beg to thank you.” You’d think, “Huh? You’re putting me on.”
The acid test – read your letter out loud when you’re done. You might get a shock – but you’ll know for sure if it sounds natural.
Don’t be cute or flippant. The reader won’t take you seriously. This doesn’t mean you’ve got to be dull. You prefer your letter to knock ‘em dead rather than bore ‘em to death.
Three points to remember:
Have a sense of humor. That’s refreshing anywhere – a nice surprise in a business letter.
Be specific. If I tell you there’s a new fuel that could save gasoline, you might not believe me, but suppose I tell you this: “Gasohol” – 10% alcohol, 90% gasoline – works as well as straight gasoline. Since you can make alcohol from grain or corn stalks, wood or wood waste, coal – even garbage, it’s not worth some real follow-through.
Now you’ve got something to sink your teeth into.
Lean heavier on nouns and verbs, lighter on adjectives. Use the active voice instead of the passive. Your writing will have more guts.
Active voice: “I kicked out my money manager.” Or, passive voice: “My money manager was kicked out by me.”
Give it the best you've got
When you don’t want something enough to make the effort, making an effort is a waste.
Make your letter back appetizing – or you’ll strike our before you even get to bat. Type it – on good quality stationery. Keep it neat. And use paragraphing that makes it easier to read.
Keep your letter short to one page, if possible. Keep your paragraphs short. After all he’s going to benefit if your letter is quick and easy to read?
For emphasis, underline important words. And sometimes indent sentences as well as paragraphs.
Like this. See how well it works? (But save it for something special.)
Make it perfect. No typos, no misspellings, no factual errors. If you’re sloppy and let mistakes slip by, the person reading your letter will think you don’t know better or don’t care. Do you?
Be crystal clear. You won’t get what you’re after if your reader doesn’t get the message.
Use good English. If you’re still in school, take all the English and writing courses you can. The way you write and speak can really help – or hurt.
If you’re not in school (even if you are), get the little 71-page gem by Strunk & White, Elements of Style. It’s in paperback. It’s fun to read and loaded with tips on good English and good writing.
Don’t put on airs.
Pretense invariably impress only the pretender.
Don’t exaggerate. Even once. Your reader will suspect everything else you write.
Distinguish opinions from facts. Your opinions may be the best in the world. But they’ re not gospel. You owe it to your reader to let him know which is which. He’ll appreciate it and he’ll admire you.
The dumbest people I know are those Know It All.
Be honest. It’ll get you further in the long run. If you’re not, won’t rest easy until you’re found out. (The latter, not speaking from experience.)
Edit ruthlessly. Somebody said that words are like inflated money – the more you use, the less each one is worth. Go through your entire letter as many times as it takes. Annihilate all unnecessary words, sentences – even paragraphs.
Sum it up get out
The last paragraph should tell the reader exactly what you want him to do – or what you’re going to do. Short and sweet. “May I have an appointment? Next Monday; the 16th, I’ll call your secretary to see when it’ll be most convenient for you.”
Close with something simple like, “Sincerely.” And for heaven’s sake sign legibly. The biggest ego trip I know is a completely illegible signature.