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Archive for the “Letters” Category

The topic today is that antediluvian museum piece, the personal business letter.

847.BusinessLetterThis quaint antiquarian form of business communication is a disappearing art form.  It is in sad disrepute, condemned to ridicule and contumely by the go-go cutting edge of business.  The idea of sending a personal letter is increasingly pooh-poohed (if considered at all) as an inefficient instrument of nostalgia and the past.

Let me be contrarian on this.  It is my feeling that entrepreneurs increasingly are abandoning an important communication tool by dismissing the efficacy of the personal letter.  Of course, entrepreneurs are not the only ones.  The US Post Office is bankrupt because of a huge drop in letters of any kind (along with the innate lumbering inefficiencies of any government bureaucracy.)

Certainly, most small businessmen are uncommonly busy.  Emailing, tweeting, and linking in are faster modes of communication.  Yet I also believe there is a certain emotional laziness to going too quickly to reaching out just through these insta-presto mediums.

It is a personal thing writing a good business letter.  It is a warm medium and can connect people on a more emotional level.  Even a simple one line personal thank you note does this.  But there are several reasons business folk are quick to abandon it.

  1. Let’s face it.  Most businessmen don’t write very well.  Arthur Levitt, past Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bloomberg, has been on a jihad to bring good English back to business.  He says much of business writing is cold, shallow, and, often, lacks nuance and color.  It is boring to read.
  2. A good letter requires energy to write with compelling sincerity.  A compelling letter means being open and vulnerable and personal, to some extent, to your correspondee—even in a sales letter.  While most entrepreneurs are passionate, the business intimacy innate in the process is usually not comfortable or the strong suit for business people.
  3. 5758portraitofjohndonneWriting isn’t taught or remediated in business school.  Sharon Washington, Executive Director of the National Writing Project, says our high schools and undergraduate programs have de-emphasized writing and constant digital communication has eroded basic writing and vocabulary skills.  (LOL, OMG, WTF, BRB, etc.)  U understand?

So why should the entrepreneur write more personal letters, especially in the sales process?

Well, I’ll tell you why.  It’s simply because, since people don’t send letters any more, when you get one you notice it and actually read it.  It shows  personal attention and a service orientation in the midst of an increasingly impersonal society.  (Quick Hint From Heloise—To make your letter have the best impact, use a very high quality of stationary or card.)

As John Donne put it to Sir Henry Wotton (1633),  “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.”  Thank you, John

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MBA programs are changing. Programs are continually updating themselves and working to make themselves more viable and popular in a society tangled up in student loan debt. Accredited MBA courses have gone completely digital as distance learning becomes more of a popular option for those who decide to continue their education while still working. Corporate Social Responsibility has infiltrated an industry once driven completely by metrics and increasing profits. However, many business students, especially MBAs, lag behind in one area: writing. In many business programs, it is possible to take entire classes without submitting one piece of writing. Though the bulk of communication in business happens numerically, being able to effectively communicate in other ways is the difference between success and failure, especially for entrepreneurs. As technology progresses, investors and associates will require more frequent updates in language they can understand and without help, many will find they are not up to par.

There’s an art to business writing, an art that begins with good writing.

I was caught by an article on March 3, 2011 in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Students Struggle For Words” (Diana Middleton, page B8). It documents the growing complaints by employers of the inadequate writing skills on the part of newly minted MBAs. Anecdotal evidence includes complaints about business school graduates rambling, using pretentiously technical language, or careless and overly-casual emails.

There is some hard evidence to back up these complaints. Ms. Middleton cites evidence from the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admissions Test. GMAT essay scores have fallen from 4.7 out of 6 to 4.4 in the last four years. Or take Sharon Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project in Berkeley, says our high schools and undergraduate programs have de-emphasized writing and constant digital communication has eroded writing skills (LOL, WTF, OMG, BRB, etc.)

Arthur Levitt, former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bloomberg contributor, has been on a jihad to bring plain English back to business.  He says much business writing is incomprehensible. “It lacks color and nuance, and it’s not terribly interesting to read.

There is one quality I find essential in written communication with real decision makers at corporations. That quality is simplicity.

Executive face time has immense value. My firm, Corporate Rain International, only does one thing which is to create serious introductions for our clients with strategic corporate leaders. I strongly believe that, short of a personal introduction, the best way to initially reach out to corporate decision makers is a snail mail letter of utter simplicity. Ideally this letter on your best stationary should be able to be scanned in four seconds by a busy executive and be focused on ROI. Prolixity is to be avoided at all cost.

A written letter shows respect, personal seriousness, and class. While simplicity is the byword of the introductory letter, that does not mean you should limit the use of exact vocabulary. Don’t dumb it down. High level executives are usually educated, sophisticated people who respect the subtle and gradated use of language. However, the primary point of business writing is to simply get to the point with grace and exactitude. (For more on this scroll back to Dec. 7, 2010 Letters and Executive Sales.)

And perhaps most important of all is to actually have something of worth and originality to communicate in the first place. As Sholem Asch writes, “Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.” (New York Herald Tribune, 11/6/55)

Thanks, Sholem.

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Here’s a little dinosaur wisdom: If you want to initiate new business with real corporate decision makers, write a letter. Send it snail mail, just like Grandma.

Yup. That’s my brilliant marketing suggestion for the week. Send this letter with a real stamp, ideally an attractive commemorative. Do not use labels for the address, but only direct printing on the envelope. Be sure to use expensive stationary. Spend the money. It’s a very minor expense and it makes a major statement. The very touch of your letter connotes seriousness and respect for yourself and your potential client. It creates a sensual branding statement.

Ideally the body of the letter should absurdly, insultingly oversimplify the wonder of your company. It should be able to be scanned essentially in five seconds by a busy executive. The letter should go something like this:

  1. Request a meeting on a specific date. (The date means nothing. It’s simply a technique for focusing the reader’s mind.)
  2. Describe very briefly what you do, some authenticating clients and any salient defining information (awards, differentiators, rankings, quotes from major press, etc.).
  3. Most importantly, one short paragraph should have two case studies of one sentence each–emphasizing money, ROI, or percentages of increased sales or savings. Pure green eye shade stuff.
  4. No creativity. None of the unique qualitative reasons to use your firm. Then bold maybe four phrases in the letter.

That’s it. The letter should include no collateral and make as little time demand as possible on a busy corporate executive. The point of all this is simply to create a hint, a fragrance, a trope, a memory that he or she got something serious from you. Then you or your representative, of course, must follow up, referencing the letter. But that’s a discussion for another day.

There is one thing a corporate decision-maker is looking for. That thing is clear ROI, whether in the form of earnings, savings, or efficiency. If you can make a compelling, differentiated, classy appeal, your chances of penetration distinctly improve.

Despite all the magical new technology and social messaging, real executive rain-making must be personalized. I feel it is insulting to try to initiate with a busy corporate executive without the weighted intonation of a letter. Quite aside from issues of spamming and information overload, a personal letter is innately imbued with the assumption of a high-level courtesy and a bespoke respect between equals. The most important fact about selling to decision-making corporate executives is simply this: They like to deal with their peers. They like to be deal with people of equal gravitas and authority.

Singer/songwriter Peter Allen wrote a song many years ago called “Everything Old Is New Again.” Ironically, snail mail’s very decline in the face of the Internet’s communication maelstrom, makes it increasingly more effective and noticeable when it is used.

For, as John Donne said in his poem “To Sir Henry Wotton” (1633), “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.” Thank you, John.

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