They say that in today’s technological age, the art and practice of writing letters are no longer fashionable. On the contrary, people still rely heavily on letters and memos to communicate with one another. Though the medium may have changed to accommodate technology, the principles behind successful business correspondence remain the same: They should be audience-oriented (seeing situations from the reader’s point-of-view), purposeful (the reason for writing is clear), and short (ideas are concise and clear). In this lesson, you will learn how to write effective business letters.
One of the most common forms of business correspondence is a business letter. This is a formal message that is written, typed, or printed and is typically sent from one organization to another party outside the organization, such as customers, clients, or partners.
Letters have many uses. They can be used for compliments, complaints, questions, recommendations, or requests, amongst others. According to Guffey (2007), they are important for the following reasons:
- permanent records of something are required;
- formality is needed; and
- messages are sensitive and must be organized.
Letters can generally be categorized according to the following:
- Positive and neutral letters. These letters communicate goodwill, neutral and straightforward requests, and positive messages. They are used for everyday business, such as direct requests for information and action, and responses to these.
- Persuasive letters. These letters try to convince the reader to perform a particular course of action. Examples of these letters include sales pitches.
- Negative letters. These letters contain negative messages such as bad news, poor service, misunderstandings, complaints, and refusals. Special care should be taken in writing these letters, because bad news may annoy, infuriate, or disappoint the reader.
Writing letters becomes easier when you stick to a suggested writing plan. The organization of the message is dependent on its content. The following patterns of organization, modified from Guffey (2007), can be used, depending on the letter you are writing:
1. Direct requests (neutral letters)
- Introduction: Begin with the most important question or request.
- Body: Explain the request clearly and politely.
- Conclusion: End with a request for a concrete action, with a definite time if possible, and express gratitude
2. Persuasive messages
- Introduction: Open with a hook to grab your reader’s attention, such as a question, benefit, unusual fact or feature, or situation.
- Body: Provide details that increase interest. Use appeals to both logic and emotion. Anticipate the reader’s concerns.
- Conclusion: End with an action that motivates the reader.
3. Negative messages
- Introduction: Prepare the reader for the bad news by providing a neutral statement, such as facts, agreement, appreciation, or apologies.
- Body: Clearly state the reasons for the bad news before mentioning the news. Afterward, clearly express the news in an understated way.
- Conclusion: Provide an alternative, if possible. Otherwise, include a forward-looking statement that builds goodwill.
Below is the general format of a business letter:
You can follow these other tips, as quoted from Guffey (2007), in formatting your letters:
- Start the date 2 inches from the top or 1 blank line below the letterhead.
- For block style, begin all lines at the left margin.
- Leave side margins of 1 to 1 1/2 inches depending on the length of the letter.
- Single-space the body and double-space between paragraphs.
- Bulleted items may appear flush left or indented.
Take note that this format may be used for when your business letters are sent via e-mail; there will only be a few differences, such as the lack of a header (which can be replaced by your organization’s address) or a digital signature.
The most familiar form of internal communication in the business setting is the memorandum, normally called a memo. Memos have various uses and purposes, such as
- giving recommendations;
- requesting for information;
- sending orders to employees;
- providing responses to queries;
- sketching out procedures, rules, and regulations;
- reporting about finished actions or new information; and
- finalizing business decisions.
In essence, however, memos simply direct attention to problems and help resolve them.They do this by stating the writer’s intentions to the reader (“I am writing because…”), informing the reader what he needs to know (like facts and minutes of meetings), and moving him to action (like consulting with management or writing a report). Memos serve their purposes best when they link the intentions of the writer with the interests and needs of the reader.
Memos can come in two forms: in hand-written form or in e-mail form. Due to the efficiency of technology, most workplaces and offices around the world today use the e-mail form more than the hand-written form. Whichever form you use, the same rules in writing memos still apply.
Writing and Organizing Memos
Below is a general list of guidelines you can follow in writing memos:
- Know your reasons and goals for writing the memo. If you are going to share sensitive information or give out a simple instruction, a memo may not be the best channel. Some messages are better relayed through a face-to-face conversation or a phone call.
- Do proper research on all your facts. Talk to people, review files, and consult your superior to get your information straight and accurate. Most professionals make the mistake of sending memos with erroneous information; this wastes time and effort on both the writer and the reader.
- Choose your audience wisely. If you plan to send the memo only to one person, do not send it out to the whole office. Make sure that your message only reaches its intended recipients, or you run the risk of leaking out information to people who have no business knowing it.
- Formally begin the memo by labeling the top of the page with “Memorandum,” “Memo,” or other similar labels.
- Provide headings for your memo indicating the name of the recipient, the name of the sender, the date the memo is written, and the subject for the memo. Format is provided below as follows:
- The subject line should be up front, clearly worded, and specific about the content of the memo. If its subject line is vague, the reader may well just skip over it.
- Introduction. Start by stating your purpose for writing, and then follow this up with a short abstract of the memo’s body. Make sure the main points of your message are already highlighted here, so that your reader knows what to expect as he reads on. Make your introduction as short and concise as possible. (One paragraph will do.)
- Body. This part develops the main points highlighted in your opening. Begin each paragraph or section of the body with a sentence containing the most important information, so your reader can quickly find the information he needs. Then further develop the first sentence of each section with supporting facts and points. Keep all paragraphs within the body of the memo short; use just a maximum of eight lines per paragraph. Remember to arrange your information according to importance (from the most to the least important). You can also make use of subheadings to organize the content of the memo more effectively.
- Try to make your memo as readable and easy to understand as possible. You can use columns, bulleted lists, white space, underlined or bold text and other techniques that increase ease of reading. These will actually help your audience retain the information in their minds better.
- Conclusion. This should briefly highlight again your main points in the introduction. Then, it should request an action from the reader (Example: “Please reply on or before…”; “Attend the board meeting next week…”) If action is not requested of the reader, then the segment may end instead with a courteous, closing thought. (Example: “Thank you for your kind consideration”; “I would like to consult with you next week…”) The conclusion can also mention to whom the reader can address further queries or comments about your memo.
- When writing memos, do not use salutations at your opening (Example: “Dear Mr. Alvarez”) or a matching close (Example: “Sincerely, Ms. Santos”). Furthermore, you do not need to close your memo with your signature, since you as the sender are already mentioned in a heading at the top of the memo.
- Keep the memo overall as short as one page (or even less); any additional ‘information can be attached to the memo, or put in a separate summary. Remember as well to use simple, specific, and concrete language in writing your memo. If your reader can fully understand your message after reading your memo, then it was written effectively. To better illustrate the application of the guidelines listed above, below is a sample memo. Be sure to observe all visual aspects of the memo, especially the memo’s format.
You can follow these additional tips, as taken from Guffey (2007), in formatting your memos:
- Set one tab to align entries evenly after Subject.
- Type the subject line in all caps or capitalize the initial letters of principal words.
- Leave 1 or 2 blank lines after the subject line.
- Single-space all but the shortest memos. Double-space between paragraphs.
- For full-page memos on plain paper, leave a 2-inch top margin.
- For half-page memos, leave a 1-inch top margin.
- Use 1.25-inch side margins.
- For a two-page memo, use a second-page heading with the addressee’s name, page number, and date.
- Handwrite your initials after your typed name.
- Place bulleted or numbered lists flush left or indent them 0.5 inches