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Communication

Writing a Business Letter

June 5, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Business Writing

Writing a Business Letter

In broad terms, business writing can be broken into five steps: (1) Gather, (2) Organize, (3) Focus, (4) Draft, and (5) Edit. All good writing goes through a process of thoughtful analysis (gathering, organizing, and focusing ideas), drafting, editing, and (where necessary) rewriting. However, before pen is even set to paper, it is even more important to address five key areas when you are planning to send out any communication—these are Purpose and Audience, Format, Communication Strategy, Word Choice and Structure. Let’s therefore look at these five areas in a little more detail:

Purpose and Audience

Your purpose and your audience will determine many critical features of your intended document, including your format, strategy, and word choice. So the first thing to determine when you are writing a document is—Who are your primary and secondary audiences? Primary audiences are those who receive the communication directly. Secondary, or “hidden”, audiences include anyone who may indirectly receive the communication. These parties include anyone who will receive a copy, need to approve, will hear about, or be affected by your message. You should determine the level of knowledge, interest, and any potential biases the audience may have with regard to your message.

Format

There are essentially three choices when selecting a format for your business communication:

Business Letter. Perhaps a little old-fashioned in these high tech and electronic data times but a formal business letter is preferred when presenting information to a supervisor, manager or director or when the communication will be seen by many, such as customers and shareholders.

Memo. Again a little old-fashioned but a memo (memorandum) sent on paper or as a PDF attachment perhaps more often these days, is a less formal style that is used when the information being communicated is of less importance, does not leave the office, and when communicating with subordinates.  Memos and letters are fast becoming less common, but still have their place within some organizations.

E-mail. E-mail is the least formal and now most commonly used of the styles presented here and should be used for informal communication such as reminders, questions, or when preferred by the recipient. It is important to note that e-mail is public domain. No confidential messages should be sent via e-mail unless you have company technology and policy in place that allows for secure communication.

Communication Strategy

It is important to know consider your audience’s interests and biases as these have a significant impact on the communication strategy you adopt.

If your audience has a high interest level in your communication you can go directly to the point without taking much time to win their interest. Build a good, logical argument. If your audience has a low interest level, you should use more of a tell/sell style to motivate the reader’s interest. Keep your message as short as possible; long documents are intimidating and readers/listeners tend to tune out what seems like rambling.

You should also know your audience’s probable bias: positive or negative. If your audience is positive or neutral, reinforce their existing attitude by stating the benefits that will accrue from your message. If they have a negative bias, try one of these techniques: (1) Limit your request to the smallest one possible. (2) Respond to anticipated objections; you will be more persuasive by stating and rejecting alternatives than having them devise their own, which they will be less likely to reject. (3) State points you think they will agree with first; if audience members are sold on two or three key features of your proposal, they tend to sell themselves on the other features as well. (4) Get them to agree that there is a problem, then solve the problem. Finally, if you are liable to encounter strong opposition, list the opposing arguments and explain why you rejected them.

Word Choice

Overuse of jargon or acronyms in a communication make a document hard to read, even if the primary audience is familiar with them. You should limit the use of jargon and acronyms in a communication to as few as possible, particularly if your primary or secondary audiences are not as well-versed in their use, or meaning. You must also watch for confusing or incorrect word choice in your document.

Structure

The introduction is an important place to set up the underlying flow for the rest of the document. An effective introduction accomplishes three aims: It builds readers interest, explains your purpose for writing, and it provides a preview of the document.

Summary

There is a lot to learn in writing a really good business letter in any format. However, it will be given a strong boost if you cover the five areas of Purpose and Audience, Format, Communication Strategy, Word Choice and Structure in your preparation.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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