The business letter: still a valuable communication tool

The letter has traditionally been the central vehicle for written messages in the world of business. In fact, it still is. Even today, in spite of the continuing growth in e-mail, text messaging and other technologies, when we want to send important information in writing to people outside our companies or organizations, the letter is still the best choice.

By its very nature—a printed message on paper—it creates the impression that it is important. In a sea of electronic communication, the letter stands out.

Letters have many purposes: informing, persuading, selling, requesting, apologizing, confirming and much more. The content may vary, but structurally they have much in common. In fact, whatever the purpose or content, the anatomy of a business letter is more or less constant.

The most common approach is in fact the least effective. Most people seem to feel they must ease into the subject of the letter gradually, so they begin with unimportant information, or facts already known to the reader. Likewise, they like to ease out of the letter with statements of little importance that add nothing to the purpose of the message. The most important facts fall somewhere in the middle of the letter.

This format is the exact opposite of the shape of an effective business letter.

The psychological principle known as the Law of Primacy and Recency states that we remember best what we see or hear first and what we see or hear last. Have you ever been to a musical production, either in live theatre or in the movies? As people were leaving the theatre at the end of the show, what was the song on everyone’s lips? Right—the big closing number. And of course that’s usually a reprise of—you guessed it, the big opening number!

That’s because Andrew Lloyd Webber and other impresarios understand the Law of Primacy and Recency and take advantage of it. You can do the same when you write a business letter, which would result in an emphasis on a strong opening and close.

Here is one example of each:

Instead of opening with “We have received your letter of March 15” (which states the obvious), you might try, “As you requested in your March 15 letter, we enclose a copy of your statement.”

The common close, “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention,” could be replaced with a relationship-building statement such as, “Thank you for giving us this opportunity to correct the misunderstanding over your account. We look forward to continuing our business relationship with you in the future.”

The beginning and end of your letter represent valuable space in your reader’s mind, and you must make good use of that space. Now of course that doesn’t mean the body of the letter isn’t important, but if you use the opening to grab the reader’s attention, he or she will be more like to concentrate on your message. If you close the letter effectively, you’re more likely to get the response you want.