Take a look at the next four or five letters, e-mails, and memos that cross your desk. Do they sing out with clarity and precision? Or do they sound as if they were written by a lawyer in a Charles Dickens novel? Worse yet: do they sound like they were written by a lawyer in your own company?
Don't get me wrong: lawyers are there to protect you, to dot the i's, to think of everything. But you are there to deal with the customer, and part of that means writing in such a way that you come across as human, caring, up to date, and personal.
As someone who teaches on-site seminars in "Effective Business Writing" and "Technical Writing," I read hundreds of letters, memos, reports, e-mail, proposals, manuals, and procedures. Rarely do I see a document that completely avoids what I call the "10 Deadliest" words and phrases commonly found in business writing.
Do a few stodgy phrases ruin a letter? Is this such a big deal? Well, when you consider how many letters are being sent by American companies today alone, you realize how important it is to make them clear, concise, and appropriate to a new Millennium.
By eliminating the following 10 phrases, you can, in a single stroke, make your company's documents significantly better. Also, you will improve your company's image, settle claims more amiably, "sell" settlements better, get information quicker, and cut thousands of wasted words.
Here are the 10 phrases that I always either delete or find substitutes for as I review writing samples:
1. "Yours very truly" (also "Sincerely yours" and "Very truly yours"). You are not theirs. These closings are antiquated. I find myself using "Sincerely" almost all the time.
2. "Respectfully" - This closing has a solemn, almost hat-in-hand aspect to it that I dislike. I see it used in denial letters all the time. Perhaps what the writer is thinking is this: "If I use 'Respectfully,' it will soften the blow." But, of course, it doesn't. It just adds a somber tone and won't make the reader any happier about having his or her claim denied.
3. "Please be advised ..." - A lawyer-like phrase that is almost always unnecessary. Usually you are not so much giving "advice" as you are "telling' or "informing." Save this phrase for the act of giving of advice. But no need to write: "Please be advised that the check is overdue." Simply write: "The check is overdue." Instead of "I advised him to call me tomorrow," just write "I told [or asked] him to call me tomorrow." Maybe "told has a bit too harsh a tone for some, in which case feel free to use this "advice" as needed. But "advise" or "be advised" is almost always overkill.
4. "Kindly" - "Please" works better than this old fashioned word.
5. "I have forwarded..." "I am forwarding" - In e- mail, "forwarding" does have a specific meaning: the sending of materials from someone other than the writer to the reader. In other cases (e.g., I am forwarding my business card to you), just use "send."
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6. "Above-captioned" (also: "above referenced") - Any of these phrases tells the reader to stop reading, roll his eyes back to the "RE line," find the information, and then re-enter the letter to continue its reading. Wouldn't it be easier to just summarize the salient information in the letter itself? In other words, if the "above-mentioned claim" refers to "Smith vs. Jones," why not write, "In the Smith vs. Jones claim..." Sometimes the "above" will refer to a claim number. In this case, just put the claim number in the letter itself. The trick in writing is to keep the reader reading with as few distractions as possible.
7. "Please do not hesitate to contact me." - I'll refrain from writing, "If I had a dollar for every time I see this phrase used...." because then I'd be using a cliché to criticize a cliché'! The prevalent "please do not hesitate" was a light, bright phrase when it was coined almost a half-century ago, but now, like most clichés, it pays a price for its popularity. When you use a cliché, you subtly send a message to your reader that you think in clichés. So, innocuous as this phrase may sound, it does portray its writer as blandly impersonal. Use: "please call me," polite with out the cliché connection.
8. "Please note that..." Again, here's a phrase that may seem innocent but it has, for me, a rather schoolmarmish tone ( "Now, pay attention!") I'd omit the phrase.
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9. "Enclosed please find." - This phrase, more than any other in the world of businsss writing, epitomizes the lawyer-like way people start to write when they are either desperate to avoid using a pronoun like "I" or simply love to repeat phrases they've seen in other letters without ever thinking for themselves. After all, what do you have to "find"?
That reminds me of a joke. A guy goes into a restaurant and orders a steak dinner. Later, the waiter walks over table, smiles obsequiously, and asks "How did you find your steak?" The guy looks at the waiter and says, "I just moved the mashed potatoes--and there it was!"
When The Beatles were returning home after coming to the United States, a journalist asked them: "How did you find America?" One of the Fab Four answered, "We turned left at Greenland."
Enough said! There's nothing to "find." Use "enclosed is..." or "I've enclosed."
10. "Under separate cover" - When you write, "I am sending you this "under separate cover," you are perpetuating a formalistic and old fashioned phrase. When I hear the word "cover," I think of a big spaghetti pot and that reminds me to "boil down" the thought to read, "I am sending you it separately [or by FedEx, etc.]"
If you see these phrases all the time, maybe it's time to train some of your people to sharpen their writing, to make sure it moves your company forward.
Gary Blake, author of The Elements of Business Writing, is a Port Washington, NY-based writing consultant who presents on-site business writing seminars throughout the United States. Dr. Blake offers an editorial Hotline as well as one-on-one training by phone, fax, and e-mail. Dr. Blake can be reached at (516) 767-9590 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His web site is located at www.writingworkshop.com
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