Business Letters that Work

Quick Tips

Use plain English. If you wouldn't say it, don't write it.

Avoid outdated phrases and unnecessary "legal speak."

Use short sentences and paragraphs.

Tell the reader what you would like him or her to do.

Make it easy for the reader to contact you.

“Per our conversation, enclosed please find the brochure about XYZ Services…” Would you ever say this out loud to a client? Probably not. It would sound silly. But I’ll bet you’ve received letters that sound like this.

Loosen Up Your Letters

Many people think business letters have to be stuffy and formal to be perceived as businesslike. I’m telling you that people will be much more interested in what you have to say if you loosen up and be yourself.

Make it Sound Like a Conversation

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t say it to the person’s face, you probably shouldn’t write it either. I’m not suggesting you start your letter with “What’s up, dude?” but a letter is much more appealing in plain English. Even though contractions such as “I’m” and “we’re” are unsuitable in academic writing, it’s fine to use them in most business letters. The letter should sound professional and respectful, but not stuffy.

Banish the Formal Language

Use words people can understand. Instead of “enclosed herein please find,” you can just say, “Here’s the brochure I told you about.” It gets your point across in a more friendly way. Rather than “please do not hesitate to call,” instead try “give me a call.”

Keep it Moving

People are busy, so there’s no time for beating around the bush. Just tell them what they need to know.

Get to the Point Quickly

The opening sentences should clearly state the purpose of your letter. “XYZ is pleased to submit a proposal for your expansion project. The enclosed document answers each of the points you outlined in your RFP.”

Keep it Short and Simple

Try to keep your sentences to an average of 16 words or fewer. Limit paragraphs to two or three sentences each. This makes the text easier and faster to read, and helps keep the reader’s attention.

Be Positive

Try to avoid negative expressions such as “Our proposal does not include X, Y and Z.” Instead you could say “If you would like to add X, Y and Z to our proposal, I will be glad to provide an updated quote.” It’s important to be positive when writing to a dissatisfied customer, even if you were not at fault. You can help restore good will by being sympathetic but direct. “I understand your frustration with the delay. As soon as we receive XYZ from your PDQ department, we can move on to the next phase.”

Give it More Power

Try to keep the letter as active and interesting as possible without making it too wordy.

Use Active Verbs

Passive verbs can make letters sound wimpy. “Your needs will be assessed and a feasibility study will be prepared.” Wimpy, right? Instead try this: “We will assess your needs and prepare a feasibility study.” It’s a subtle change that makes a difference.

Draw Attention to Important Points

Bullet points attract the reader’s attention, so use them to highlight important facts. Keep each bullet point brief, no more then two sentences. If they start looking like paragraphs, they’re too long.

  • We have more than 20 years of experience with XYZ.
  • Our team includes a PDQ specialist.
  • We have recently completed three similar projects.
  • We can complete your project by July 28.

Motivate the Reader to Act

Use the last sentence of your letter to remind the reader what you want him to do. “Please call Pam at 404-378-0081 by Friday, June 12 to make your reservation for the Open House.” For more informal letters you can use a P.S. line to restate an important action or date. “P.S. Don’t forget the special offer expires June 5, so call 404-378-0081 today!”

Make Yourself Accessible

You’ve just written a proposal for a really great project. The proposal will be delivered (or maybe emailed) to the client Friday afternoon. When will she read it? Over the weekend, probably. You expect her to have questions. If you really want the client to call you, make it sound genuine. “Please call me anytime if you have questions. My office number is 404-378-0081. My cell phone is 404-909-2654 if you’d like to discuss the proposal over the weekend.”

Email Correspondence

So what about email correspondence? If you’re sending official communications (cover letters, proposals, etc.) via email, you should compose your letter just as if you were writing a hard copy. Keep the email letters neat, professional and concise. Even though an email doesn’t have a space limit like a sheet of paper, don’t write 15 paragraphs; nobody has the time to read that. Avoid being overly familiar. Steer clear of texting abbreviations like pls or thx, and use the spell checker!

When writing less-formal business emails, feel free to be casual with recipients you know well; just keep the communication professional and positive. Remember, your business emails are a reflection of you and your job. People are far more likely to share an email than a written letter, so take care what you write and how you write it.