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The AMA Handbook of Business Letters
By Jeffrey L. Seglin Edward Coleman
AMACOMCopyright © 2012 Jeffrey L. Seglin
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePlanning the letter
Planning is a key factor in the accomplishment of any goal. Letter writing is no exception. To successfully construct a clear, effective letter, you need a good plan.
Some letters do not require as elaborate a plan as others. A letter to a customer detailing a proposal for a product purchase will obviously need a more elaborate plan than a thank-you note for a business lunch.
Common sense can usually dictate how elaborate your plan needs to be. If the information you need to present in a letter is limited enough for you to outline it in your head, there is no real need for a detailed outline featuring Roman numeral headings and sub-points beneath sub-points. The elaborateness of your plan should suit the elaborateness of the letter to be written.
Of course, if you, as a letter writer, are more comfortable constructing a detailed outline for each of your letters, there's nothing wrong with following that procedure. With enough practice, however, the simpler letters should flow more easily, and the time you might have spent laboring over outline after outline can be directed to other areas of your business.
The following three steps are essential in the planning of any letter:
1. Researching the facts
2. Analyzing the subject and reader
3. Knowing your objectives and how to accomplish them
If you follow these steps as you are planning to write any letter, you should find that your letters will be clear and well received, and will achieve your desired goal.
Researching the Facts
Before you write a letter, it makes sense to know what you plan to talk about. If you wing it and write whatever comes into your head, chances are you'll end up with a confused, ineffective letter.
Get the facts together before you write anything resembling a first draft of a letter. For example, if you are corresponding with a customer, examine all previous correspondence with him or her. Depending upon the volume of this correspondence, and assuming the customer to be a fairly good letter writer, you can learn a good deal about the personality, interests, and values of the person to whom you are writing.
As you examine previous correspondence, jot down a note or two about some key traits you discover about this customer. For example, you have gone through your correspondence file for a potential customer named Sam Johnson. From what he has written you realize the following things about him. He:
* Is committed to existing business relationships.
* Places importance on a personal relationship between the professional and the customer.
* Often suggests ideas for improving business practices and professional/customer relationships.
* Has a strong interest in reducing costs.
After jotting down this information, try to visualize the person to whom you are writing. You know something about the customer's interests. To learn more, you might examine the file on business dealings with the customer. If you learn as much as possible about your reader, you'll find it easier to write a letter directed to him or her.
After you have collected some facts on your customer, you should direct your attention to the topic or topics to be covered in the letter. The simplest and ultimately most effective thing to do is to take a piece of paper and write down those topics you plan to cover. Under each topic you might write some examples or a few words recalling a discussion you might have had with your customer about it.
Let's stick with the example of potential customer Sam Johnson. You've already had a business meeting with Mr. Johnson and you want to write a follow-up letter. You already know something about his personality from the earlier research you did, and of course, from impressions formed during the course of your meeting. You decide you want to cover the following topics in your letter:
* Thanks for meeting
* His idea for a lockbox
Speeds up collections
* Appreciate his views on business
Loyalty to existing business relationships
* Arrange for another meeting
The order in which you write down ideas for topics is unimportant at this point in the planning stage. The main thing is to make sure the letter covers the topics that will let customer Johnson know you are writing to him about issues that are of concern to him.
Timeliness is extremely important in any letter, including the one we are using as an example. You want to get a letter to your customer while the topics being discussed are still fresh in both of your minds. As you are doing your research, determine how long discussion has been taking place about the topics to be included in your letter and what, if any, action has already been taken. A fundamental rule to remember in all of your correspondence is that timeliness is essential for effectiveness.
Analyzing the Subject and Reader
You've completed your research. You know something about the person to whom you're writing. You have a good idea what topics will be covered in the letter. The information you've gathered must now be analyzed so you can logically organize it for the best results.
An outline is a good method of organizing topics and visualizing the order in which you wish to discuss them in the letter. You can order the letter chronologically, by importance of the topics discussed, or in whatever order is most effective. Your choice is flexible, but it must be logical and you should not mix thoughts in sentences or drop them before they are completed.
Continuing with the example of the follow-up letter to Sam Johnson, you might decide to outline your letter as follows:
Paragraph 1. a. Thanks for meeting
b. Appreciate views on business
(1) Loyalty to existing business relationships
(2) Importance of personal relationships
Paragraph 2. a. Idea for lockbox
(1) Speed up collections
Paragraph 3. a. Arrange for another meeting
You'll notice that the only difference between this rough outline and the list of topics jotted down earlier is the order. The ordering of topics is an important function of the outline.
With a letter as simple as this follow-up to Sam Johnson, it is perfectly acceptable to outline the topics in your head and go directly to the rough draft of your letter. The important thing in writing an effective letter is not writing a good outline, but rather being able to write a letter that is ordered logically and is structured well enough for you to know where it's going. If you can do this in your head, fine. You may have to work out some kinks in the rough draft, but if you can save yourself some time and still write an effective letter, more power to you. As your letters become more elaborate, you may find that working with a written outline helps to remind you of all the facts and the best order in which to present them.
When you analyze the subject matter to be covered in your letter, you should also keep in mind the research you did on your customer. Your research can serve as a brief analysis of your customer's personality, interests, and values. This information is important to keep in mind as you organize the information to be included in your letter. What's important to you may not be as important to your reader. Your letter must be aimed toward your reader.
With outline in hand or in your head, you can now begin to write your letter. Keep in mind that, in order to be as clear as possible, you should write simple sentences, avoiding any unnecessary information. Don't try to combine ideas in sentences. In order to get your point across most clearly, write about one thing at a time. For example, when you write the first paragraph of your letter to Sam Johnson, don't try to thank him for the meeting and express your appreciation for his views in the same sentence. Take one thought at a time.
Thank you for an interesting meeting yesterday. I appreciate the time and information you shared with me.
Avoid any excess in the sentences of your letter. If you start rambling, you are bound to get off the track and lose your reader. Remember, to be effective in letter writing you must grab your reader's attention and make that reader react positively to whatever it is you're writing about.
Another important thing to remember is that ideas placed at the beginning or end of a paragraph stand out most clearly to the reader. This placement of ideas is a good practice to use for emphasis in your letter writing.
Knowing Your Objectives and How to Accomplish Them
Set an objective for every letter you write. If you want a customer to accept credit terms you are offering, keep that goal in mind as you plan and write your letter. Stay focused on your goal as you choose the order of each paragraph and the wording of each sentence.
The research you did before beginning to write to your customer can help you decide how best to write the letter that will be most effective in getting your reader to react the way you would like. Your research can help make you familiar with your reader and what might have moved that reader to act in the past.
The objectives of your follow-up letter to Sam Johnson are to thank him and to attract his business. You know the value he places on loyalty to existing business relationships and on a personal relationship between the professional and the customer, so you might express your understanding of these values. It also might be a good idea, knowing Mr. Johnson's ability to make good suggestions, to react to a suggestion he might have made at your original meeting. Since your goal is to attract his business, closing your letter by telling him you'll call to set up another meeting is a good approach. Such a closing lets Mr. Johnson know you appreciate his ideas and are eager to meet with him again to discuss the possibility of doing business with him. Consider the following example of the complete text of a letter to Mr. Johnson:
Thank you for an interesting meeting yesterday. I appreciate the time and information you shared with me. I understand your sense of loyalty to existing business relationships and the importance you place on knowing and being known by the people you do business with.
During our conversation you suggested that a lockbox arrangement might speed up the collection of cash available for investment. I would like to investigate this possibility and estimate the dollar benefit to your company.
I will give you a call early next week to arrange lunch together as you suggested. Thanks again for your time. I look forward to doing business together.
Judging from the final letter to customer Johnson, the research, analysis, and knowledge of objectives were handled well by the letter writer. The careful planning in the construction of a letter such as the one above should result in the increased chance of a positive response from the letter's reader.
Chapter TwoComponents of an effective letter
Planning by itself is not enough to assure you of a positive response from your reader. There are, however, essential components of any letter that can multiply the chances of its effectiveness.
Before you begin to worry about the basic mechanics of a letter (structure, appearance, and grammar), think seriously about the attitude you wish to convey. Your attitude is conveyed through your choice of language, tone, and focus of attention. Each of these individual components is as important as anything else that goes into making up a successful letter.
The attitude conveyed in your letter can make the difference between a letter that is tossed aside and one that is read, understood, and reacted to favorably. It's basically very simple to convey a reader-oriented attitude. Remember as you write your letters that you are addressing a specific reader. Your language, tone, and focus of attention must capture the reader's interest for your letter to be successful.
Language—Clarity Versus Ambiguity
Language is a means of communication. This may seem like a foolishly simple observation to make, but remember that for communication to be completed successfully, a sender must convey his or her message so that the receiver not only receives, but also understands, the message. If language is not used clearly and accurately, the communication process cannot be successfully completed.
A simple rule to remember is that the English you use in your everyday business should be the same good English used by people in all walks of life. Granted, there may be specialized terms intrinsic to your industry, but there isn't a special type of "business English" to be learned and used when writing business letters. Good English is good English.
Be clear and straightforward in your letters. Write what you mean. Don't write in circles, making your reader guess what you mean.
Take the following example of a writer who wants to tell a customer about an important organization:
My correspondence was initiated to inform you of the high caliber of programs and activities of an organization in which I have enjoyed being involved over the past few years. The County Business Association has served to keep me informed of, and actively involved in, the current political and economic issues affecting small businesses through its monthly breakfast meetings with interesting and impressive speakers, its newsletter on legislative activities in Washington, and several other programs outlined in the attached letter.
There are many problems with this example. Let's start by examining the clarity and directness of the statement. Since the writer of the letters wants to inform the reader about an important organization, why didn't the writer come right out and do so by writing:
I am writing to you about the high-caliber programs and activities offered by the County Business Association, an organization in which I have been involved for the past few years.
In the writer's version of the letter, it is not until the second sentence of the paragraph that we even learn the name of the important organization. If you are writing about a particular subject, and that subject happens to be an organization, why not get its name right up front so the reader might enjoy learning about it throughout the rest of the letter instead of being left in suspense?
Instead of using many words ("My correspondence was initiated to inform you of ..."), why not say simply, "I am writing to you about ..."? If you come right out and say what you mean instead of beating around the bush, not only are you going to grab your reader's attention right away, but you also stand a stronger chance of convincing your reader that he or she should go on reading to find out more about what you have to say.
Be as direct as possible in your letter writing. If you can convey your message in five words instead of ten, do so.
You don't have a great deal of space in a letter to convey your thoughts. Be succinct. You're not writing a novel or a treatise on the economy. The idea is to get your message across clearly and directly.
Avoid the use of pompous or inflated language in your letters. It may sound lofty to write, "My correspondence was initiated to inform you of ...," but you are not writing to see how you can turn a catchy phrase on the page (and there's nothing "catchy" about that opener). You are writing to communicate with your reader, and if you mean, "I am writing to you about...," then that's what you should write.
Be clear, direct, and unambiguous in your letter writing. Sometimes when you think you are communicating clearly in a letter, the reader receives a different message from the one you intended. If such ambiguity is present in your letters, you can't be sure that the reader will understand your message. Ambiguous language is another problem with the example paragraph above. The writer wrote:
The County Business Association has served to keep me informed of, and actively involved in, the current political and economic issues affecting small businesses through its monthly breakfast meetings with interesting and impressive speakers, its newsletter on legislative activities in Washington, and several other programs outlined in the attached letter.
The writer did not mean to suggest that the current political and economic issues were affecting small businesses as a result of the County Business Association's monthly breakfast meetings. Because of careless wording, however, the sentence could be read to mean exactly that. The writer may be defensive and say, "Well, you knew what I meant," and in this case would certainly be correct. But if we have to read something twice to make sure of its meaning, then the chances are that it was not written clearly in the first place. The writer could have written:
Through monthly breakfast meetings with interesting speakers, a newsletter on legislative activities in Washington, and several other programs, the County Business Association has kept me informed of and involved in the current political and economic issues affecting small businesses.
Excerpted from The AMA Handbook of Business Letters by Jeffrey L. Seglin Edward Coleman Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey L. Seglin. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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