Letters, Memos and E-Mail Can Send a Message About You


"Get me something in writing about the new sales promotion that I can distribute to the VPs by 5 o'clock!" your boss said moments ago, before scooting off to another meeting. "And make it persuasive!"

You sit staring at your computer screen, your hands frozen, as your blood pressure begins to rise.

Get me something in writing, something persuasive, you mutter to yourself. Like what? A memo, an e-mail? But I can't write!

It's a situation many of us have faced. For many workers, business writing is one of the most difficult and intimidating tasks they must perform on the job.

But experts say that learning to write well--and persuasively--is a critical skill for leaders at all levels and can pave the way to promotions. For those who have already reached senior management, good written communication skills can help enhance your reputation in the organization and help determine whether others will follow your lead.

Besides obvious no-nos such as poor spelling and grammar or a failure to proofread what you write, experts cite a number of ideas to bear in mind when writing something in which your objective is to influence others. Here are a few of them:

* Goal. Before starting out, make sure you understand what your goal is and the message you want to deliver. Focus on one or two key points, and make those points early in your message. The impact of your message might be weakened if you try to make too many points at once.

* Clarity. Make sure the points you make in your writing are clear and obvious. Don't assume that the reader will know what you are referring to. Avoid ambiguous language that might confuse readers, cause them to misinterpret your meaning or even make them suspicious of your intent.

* Tone. Carefully consider the feeling or impression you want to leave in your message. Business communication need not always be serious and formal to be persuasive.

Whenever you can, be informal and conversational. Adopt a tone that is appropriate to the message. Obviously, a jovial tone would be ill-advised for a serious message involving a corporate restructuring and layoffs.

Janis Forman, director of management communication at UCLA's Anderson School, advises that "knowing one's audience" is central to any communication.

"To have an impact or be persuasive, we need to think of the audience as a participant in the action in some way," Forman says.

Forman explains that it is important to know how much your audience knows about a specific subject so that, for example, you don't offend it by talking down to it.

It's also important to understand what the audience's likely response to your message will be. And it may also help to have a sense of your own credibility with your audience.

"It's important to appeal to the reader in some way," says Tom Gorman, author of "The Complete Idiot's Almanac of Business Letters and Memos" (Macmillan General Reference, 1997).

"If you can say that in a cost-cutting effort, we're asking people to limit themselves to one coffee break each morning, then talk about why it's important to cut costs. Where will the money to be saved be used?" Gorman says.

Directness and honesty are important to bear in mind.

"When making an announcement that is unpopular, there is a tremendous urge to try to bury the information, use weasel wording or fog over the whole issue," he says. "But people see right through that and will be less receptive than if you're honest, forthright and you ask them in a reasonable way to go along with something."

Besides the message itself, it is also important to understand the various means for delivering a message. When should you use a letter, a memo or e-mail?

While more and more business communication is being done by e-mail, letters and memos still have their place, experts say.

Use letters, they advise, when communicating something of a legal or contractual nature. For reasons of privacy and the risk of technical glitches, definitely don't use e-mail for confidential matters.

Also use letters for such things as thank-you notes for a job interview, an employment offer or when seeking to get across a more personal touch.

"If you're sending someone something that they really like, why not make it something they can pick up and touch instead of just reading?" says Gorman.

With the growth in electronic mail, some believe that the traditional business letter may be an endangered species.

"The same way the telephone has nearly done away with the personal letter, e-mail has cut down on the number of business letters that people write," Gorman says.

The use of memos is also shrinking due to e-mail, but memos still have their place.

"A memo is more official and lends itself to speaking in officialese as opposed to more personal language," Gorman says. For that reason, memos may be the most effective form for laying out "action plans" or describing a new strategy for boosting sales.

But in most businesses, e-mail has replaced the formal memo because it is cheaper and quicker, notes Carol Baroudi, coauthor of "E-Mail for Dummies" (IDG Books Worldwide, 1997).

E-mail has many advantages over memos and letters. For example, it is much faster and lends itself to more interactive, give-and-take communication, Baroudi says.

When used as a persuasive medium, it is especially important to pay attention to how you write an e-mail, experts say.

Unlike with the telephone, someone reading an e-mail cannot infer things by the tone of your voice. That makes it important to write simply and clearly, to avoid offending someone unnecessarily because they misconstrued your tone.

But because e-mail is less formal in nature, many people fail to check spelling or grammar, not realizing that they may be making a bad impression in the process.

Finally, when deciding whether to use a letter, memo or e-mail, it's important to consider the corporate culture of your workplace.

Do people communicate by stopping at one another's cubicles or sending e-mails? The newly arrived manager who sends stiff, formal memos at a company where people communicate informally by e-mail might be viewed with suspicion.


Electronic Etiquette

Points to remember when writing e-mail:

* Be professional. Don't use sloppy spelling or punctuation or too many all-capped words or exclamation marks.

* Be concise. People expect e-mail to be shorter than a business letter. If your e-mail is a bit longer, make your main points early so that it shows up on the screen before scrolling is needed.

* Don't abuse. Just because e-mails are easy to send to co-workers, don't abuse the privilege. Be respectful of your co-workers' time and don't send frivolous messages.

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