Time to freshen up: Get rid of those stale phrases in business letters

It's time to take a fresh look at those stale business letters we've been sending.

Consider the way most letters begin and end. These are strategic places to make an impact, yet most of us still use time-worn phrases like "Kindly respond at your earliest convenience..." That was original several generations ago.

Dear Joan:
I read your article in The Milwaukee Journal, "The good word," and am finally relieved that there is someone to whom I can address a few questions I've had regarding business letter writing.

(1) In closing a letter, it has been our office's practice to end it with: "If you should have any further questions regarding the foregoing (or regarding this matter), please feel free to contact me (or please do not hesitate to contact me)."

We are wondering if there would be newer and more useful alternative to this closing.

(2) When addressing a letter to a department of a firm and it is not known if men or women are employed there, what is the proper salutation? (I've been using "Dear Sir or Madam").

(3) Are there any current books out regarding proper business letter writing?

Thank you very much for your assistance in this matter.

I applaud your interest in modernizing the letters your attorneys are sending to clients. The law seems to be one of the last bastions of outdated English. Such words as whereas, wherein and foregoing confuse more than they communicate.

"There is no legal protection in stuffy words. The use of ordinary English is just as binding and makes more sense," says Margo Redmond, a writing consultant in Madison, Wisconsin, who serves businesses with on-site training programs.

Redmond explains these new letter writing approaches in her workshop and book, "Write for Results." She offers a two-step "acid test" that can be applied to any letter.

First, your letter should sound like you are speaking on the telephone. Use "Please let me know if you have any questions," rather than "If you should have any further questions regarding the foregoing, do not hesitate to contact me."

Second, don't use cliches you've seen a thousand times. Consider instead the newer, more natural styles.

Let's look at some of these updated approaches. Redmond uses three rules to write snappy salutations and fresh beginnings.

Be Personal
If you can comfortably use the first name, do so. ("Dear Janet:") Also, use the first name inside the letter, but only if it sounds natural. "I'm' looking forward to hearing from you, Janet.")

If you can't tell if it's a man or woman by the first name, write "Hello, Leslie Soandso:"

If you don't know the individual's name, use his/her title. ("Public Relations Director:")

"'Dear Sir or Madam:' is not offensive, but it's also not original," explains Redmond. Using a title or role ("Dear Client," "Customer adjustment representative," "Dear Employer") is an alternative that maintains gender neutrality.

Another technique to use, when you don't know a person's name or position, is the new headline style. This is well-established in direct market mail and is starting to catch on in other areas. The idea here is to individualize because you can't personalize.

For example, "CARE ABOUT CLEAN AIR?" is a short headline and should be in capital letters. "As a Policy holder, Your Ideas Are of Value to Us." is longer, so uses bother upper and lower case letters.

Be Purposeful
In the first few sentences, state your purpose and how it may benefit or interest the reader. "John, I'm going to need some help with the new marketing campaign. I think this project will not only interest you, but give you exposure to our clients."

Be Proactive
Capture attention by using a "hook." "Sara, it looks like your patience has paid off." Keep the opening sentence short and punchy, "Good news! We got the contract."

Redmond also describes the three "C's" for ending a letter:

Be Consistent
Don't add new terms, information or ideas to the ending. You might want to summarize your purpose for writing, but stick to the same order you used in the body of the letter.

Be Cordial
End on a personal, friendly note. "I'm going to enjoy working with you on this project."

Be Compelling
If you want something, ask for it. "May I hear from you soon about how things stand?"

Two good references are" Effective Writing for Engineers, Managers and Scientists," Ticky, Henrietta. "Effective Letters in Business," Skurter, Robert.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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