How to write the perfect business letter

Always use language that is:

  • Clear
  • Direct
  • Open
  • Confident

Use positive language

Insurance language can often be rather passive and lifeless. In a marketing context, don’t be too fussy about the language you use. You are not writing a legal document. Come out and say things straight wherever possible.

Don’t talk about the abstract possibility of things being done. Say we can, or we will, do this. Not we could or we would. Don’t talk about striving, aiming, aspiring or hoping. Use more positive and confident language.

Avoid sentences using the ‘passive voice’ and those without a subject noun or pronoun. Don’t just say X will be done. Say we will do X. Some people think using the passive voice conveys gravitas. It doesn’t. Be positive and definite, and don’t write things you wouldn’t say.

Don’t be afraid to express some passion. But keep it real and avoid excessive hyperbole.

Don’t skirt around the issues. Be clear about who you are and what you do. Let the language you use express confidence and willingness to be judged on results.

Quote hard facts and figures wherever possible. Anchor your message in something hard and fast.

Use language like a human being

Read back what you write and ask yourself: would I say this face to face? Keep the language fresh and real. Don’t use the kind of unnatural stilted sentences found in technical manuals and letters from bureaucrats.

Write something you would happily read yourself.

Get colleagues to review your documents. Take their comments on board. The reader is never wrong.

Keep it customer focused

Customers and their needs must always be at the centre of what you write. Think carefully about what your customers need from any document you send out. Tailor it to deliver this clearly and succinctly, minimising standardised generic content.

Present things from the customer’s perspective from beginning to end. Cut out anything the customer doesn’t need to know. Remember: it’s the client’s document not something you are writing for your own pleasure or entertainment.

Use ‘you’ for the client and ‘we’ for your company name as often as possible. Avoid talking about ‘the customer’ or ‘the client’ in the abstract.

Use terminology that fits the customer’s perspective – not yours. Think yourself into your reader’s head and consider what language they would naturally use to describe the things you are discussing.

Give your audience credit for their intelligence. Keep it succinct and relevant to them. Don’t patronise your readers.

Precision

Make everything you say clear, compelling, and persuasive.

Always try to use the right word. Get to the point and say what you mean. Careless language suggests careless thinking and careless service.

Always choose the least ambiguous word. Select your sentence order carefully. If something doesn’t ring true at the first attempt, try changing the word order until you’re sure you have the clearest sentence structure.

The language we use reflects and influences the way we think. Getting rid of clichéd insurance industry phrases can lead to fresh insights. Describing a process clearly helps you manage it better.

Concision

Don’t use 10 words where three will suffice. Give the reader the information they need with brevity and authority.

Don’t discard essential detail, but lose excessive wordiness.

If something drags when you read it back, try distilling it further. Resist the temptation to pad things out. If you’re particularly pleased with something you’ve written, alarm bells should ring. Could you have said it in a simpler way?

Insurance can be complex. Your role is to manage that complexity, not to revel in it.

Writing something shorter can take longer. Better you should spend the time to make it simpler, than leave that task to your readers. Time is money, as they say.

Keep your sentences short. Leaven them with longer sentences here and there, when the context justifies it. But avoid long sentences with multiple clauses or parentheses. Stop one sentence. Start again.

Say providing, not the provision of.

Say delivering, not the delivery of.

But is often better than however. Primary school teachers may claim you can’t start sentences with but or and. But you can! And effective marketing literature often does.

Jargon

Avoid jargon at all costs. Use the words your readers know, not the fancy terms you think will make you sound like an expert.

Buzzwords

Avoid buzzwords. They turn people off more often than they impress. Don’t risk using any term that may not be familiar to your readers. Use the right word not the most impressive sounding word.

For example: don’t talk about actioning something. Talk about doing it, or, better still, simply use the verb form of the noun in question.

Pompous words and phrases

Don’t say things like ‘when we met you indicated that’ i.e. things you would never say to someone face to face.

Avoid words like:

therein,

hitherto,

pertaining,

notwithstanding,

upon,

wherein,

thereby,

hence

and all other pompous stilted language.

Don’t say commence. Say start or begin.

Say need, not require or requirement.

Say get, not acquire.

Say can, not ‘has the ability to’.

Punctuation

Full stops

Short sentences are good. Never hold back from using a full stop.

Commas

Use commas to indicate logical breaks in sentence structure, or natural pauses for breath.

Semicolons

Avoid semicolons. Start a new sentence if in doubt.

Brackets

Don’t get carried away with brackets. Use them only where strictly necessary e.g. when introducing an abbreviation for the first time.

Quotation marks

Don’t use inverted commas to distance yourself from what you are saying. Use them only for actual quotations of something someone else has said or written.

Use single quotation marks e.g. ‘quote’. Only use double quotation marks if a longer quotation contains a quote and you need to differentiate e.g. ‘this quote has “another quote” within it.’

Underlined text

Do not use underlining in text.

Abbreviating with apostrophes

Using apostrophised abbreviations (e.g. ‘we’re’ for ‘we are’) is perfectly acceptable, providing you think your reader will be comfortable with it. Don’t do it if you think it might not play well with a more conservative or traditional reader.

Non-regulation punctuation

Use a standard colon. Don’t use one of these: :-

Don’t use mathematical characters in text e.g. > ≠ ±

An ellipsis (…) is always exactly three dots: not 2, not 4, nor anything else.

Adjectives

Avoid any adjective that doesn’t need to be there. Readers will not take aimless superlatives (like vast, unrivalled, unique, unmatched, outstanding) seriously. Overstating things undermines credibility.

Conclusion

Every document needs a strong conclusion. Make it client-focused.

Numbers

Sentences beginning with a number always start with the Four or Nineteen rather than 4 or 19. Otherwise numbers from one to nine in sentences always appear as words. Numbers from 10 upwards always appear as numerals.

Thousands, millions, billions

Figures in thousands should be written with a comma for ease of reading (e.g. 1,000, 43,220 etc.) Millions should be written as 5m rather than 5M or 5 million. Likewise, use 5bn, not 5Bn, five billion etc. Do not use k as an abbreviation for thousand. Show thousands in figures as ,000.

Apostrophes

Write 1980s not 1980’s. SMEs not SME’s.

Ampersand

Do not use & in sentences, except where it is part of a registered company name. Write marine and energy or mergers and acquisitions, not Marine & Energy or mergers & acquisitions.

Dates

Dates should be written as Monday 23 June 2011 (day of week and year are obviously optional depending on context). Do not include st, th, rd etc.

Hyphenation

For clarity, hyphenate words when combining them to function as an adjective, e.g. third-party provider or in-house solution. Do not hyphenate when used as follows: outsourced to a third party or kept in house.

Paragraphs

There is nothing wrong with short paragraphs. Too many single-sentence paragraphs may look strange. But two or three sentences is plenty. Each time you switch to a new topic, it’s a good idea to use a paragraph.

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