Our new series on writing for direct mail is designed to give you practical advice to ensure your messages have maximum impact. In part 1, we look at business letters.
Well-written business letters can help reinforce a professional impression and achieve the results you’re looking for, whether that’s a product enquiry or payment of an outstanding invoice.
According to Frank Chamberlin, founder of business-writing company Action Words, business owners should include a statement about the purpose of the letter in the first few sentences. “The reader wants to know what your key message is straight away, so they know how important it is and what it relates to. In larger companies, the person who opens the letter may also need to hand it to the most appropriate person, so a statement of purpose saves time.”
Every business letter should be written in plain English, with subheadings introducing short paragraphs. “People are scanning more than reading,” Chamberlin explains. “Headings and subheadings let the reader know where the letter is going.”
While you may be tempted to use complicated or technical language to make the letter sound more impressive, the simpler the language, the more likely you are to communicate your message to the reader. “We don’t use words and phrases such as ‘synergise’, ‘best of breed’, ‘mindshare’ and ‘leverage’ in day-to-day language. The writer and reader may also have very different understandings of what these terms mean. Simple language is actually more precise,” says Chamberlin.
A business letter should be only as long as needed. Don’t write more or repeat yourself to fill out space, but don’t keep a letter short and leave out important information. “The letter should be structured with a statement of purpose, followed by the details, followed by the next steps,” says Chamberlin. “If you need a reply or some other type of response, highlight this early on in your statement of purpose, not in the very last paragraph.”
Greetings and signoffs
If you are writing a letter to a company representative and you’re unable to get the person’s name, then opening the letter with ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ is acceptable. However, if you know a person’s name,
you should greet them by it. “Make sure the spelling is right!” says Chamberlin. “Usually the first thing you look at is your name, so if it’s misspelt, that won’t create a very good impression.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to an appropriate sign-off, says Chamberlin. This comes down to personal choice, but consider your audience in terms of how casual or formal you are. For example, how would you say goodbye to a casual acquaintance? Would you use different language with an employer or saying goodbye to a client?
Checking the spelling and phrasing of a business letter is vital. Apart from running a computer spell-check program to catch basic errors, it’s ideal if you can ask someone else to read your letters before you post them. If that’s not an option, Chamberlin recommends taking a break – ideally overnight – then rereading your letter. “You come back the next morning, fresh, with new eyes. Errors will jump out at you,” he says.
While a spell-check program will catch many typos and even some grammatical errors, Chamberlin says it can’t correct one of the most common mistakes people make: using the wrong word. This includes using “accept” instead of “except”, “assure” instead of “ensure” and “their” instead of “there”.
With sales letters, the temptation is often to try to do too much in one letter. However, it’s important to allow the reader time to follow the sales journey, from awareness through to purchase.
“I call this next-step marketing,” says Chamberlin. “If you’re selling carpets, for example, and you offer to come out and measure up someone’s home when they’ve just started thinking about getting new carpets, you’ve jumped a number of steps in the sales journey and the customer will probably feel quite uncomfortable. Someone might surprise you and jump steps on their own, but that’s their decision.”
It’s also important to focus on the customer in a sales letter, solving a problem or addressing a need or issue they may have. “The more you can use ‘you’ and ‘your’, the better,” says Chamberlin.
Letters of demand
Prompt payment is critical for the health of your business. Chamberlin’s advice is that you are better off speaking to people on the phone first if there’s a problem. A phone call is more personal, harder to ignore, you can gauge better if your debtor is telling the truth, plus there’s a chance to open a dialogue and negotiate payment terms then and there.
If you can’t get hold of a debtor and want to send a letter of demand, your shared history should influence the tone you take. “If you have a long-standing relationship with someone, there’s already trust there, so you can take a more collaborative, conciliatory tone,” says Chamberlin. “If you’re writing to a new client and you’re a little bit worried about them, you’re entitled to use a stronger tone and more forceful language.”
In all instances, be very polite and keep the letter of demand civil and professional.
Emails versus letters
All the rules – a statement of purpose, simple language, headings, spell-checks and so on – apply to business emails, too.
However, the reader’s patience level is lower and the delete button is right there, so emails need to be briefer than letters.
Chamberlin adds: “One benefit of an email is that the subject line can be used for your statement of purpose, so use it well.”
Useful tools and resources
- Action Words offers business-writing services, training and workshops.
- Expert source: Action Words founder Frank Chamberlin is a copywriter and writing trainer, with a particular interest in direct marketing. In addition to running Action Words, he teaches at Monash University and the Australian Direct Marketing Association (ADMA).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewees, and not of Australia Post.
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