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?
As someone who teaches on-site seminars in “Effective Business 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 “17 Deadliest” words and phrases commonly found in business writing.
Do a few stodgy phrases ruin a letter? Is this 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 17 phrases, you can, in a single stroke, make your company’s documents significantly better. Also, you will improve your company’s image, gain productivity, get information quicker, and cut thousands of wasted words.
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 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.”
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 matter” refers to “Smith vs. Jones,” why not write, “In the Smith vs. Jones matter...” Sometimes the “above” will refer to a particular number or name number. In this case, just put the number or name in the letter itself. It keeps the flow. 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 stodgy tone (“Now, pay attention!”) I’d omit the phrase.
9. “Enclosed please find.” - This phrase, more than any other in the world of business 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 litters without ever thinking for themselves. After all, what do you have to “find”?
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 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.]”
11. Contact the undersigned (Send it to the undersigned) - - News flash: you are the undersigned! It is perfectly fine to write, Send it to me.” People tend to distrust the perfectly fine words “me” and “you.” To prove it, think about what you say when you run into a colleague in town. “How are you?” you say, correctly. And they probably answer: “Fine. And yourself?” Of course, it should be, Fine. “And you?”
12. “ASAP” (“As soon as possible”) - ASAP is the blandest, vaguest term in business writing. It does imply quickly, but just how quickly is a matter of interpretation. If you need a document within two weeks, write: “If possible, please send it me by [name a date two weeks from the date you on your document].”
13. “Finalize” - Every businessperson’s all-purpose hedge word. But what does it really mean? If you say you are going to “finalize” my contract next week, what are you saying you’ll do? Agree to it? Sign it? Complete writing it? Be specific: “I’ll sign your contract next week.”
14. “Dear Sir or Madam” - Not only does it sound as if you can’t make up your mind, but it ignores the fact that “Madam” is both archaic and, well, has a sexual connotation that doesn’t relate to your message. If you are unable to find out the correctly spelled name and title of the person to whom you are writing, then you must settle for some generic rendering of the title: “Dear Benefits Manager,” “Dear Managing Attorney,” or “Dear Commissioner.”
15. “To Whom It May Concern” - Would you be eager to open a piece of correspondence addressed in this way?
16. “I trust that ... ” - Very often, I see this phrase at the end of a lengthy reply to a Insurance Commissioner or Regulatory Agency regarding a complaint against the way your company has handled a claim or incident. The writer responding is a bit miffed at having to once again explain the facts and how his judgment was made. Usually, the letter is just filled with a regurgitation of the claim, but sometimes the writer can’t resist using this phrase, a phrase which gives a tone of “I hope this answers all your damn questions and that you’ll leave me in peace!” Leave this smarmy phrase out!
17. Thank you in advance for your cooperation. (Your cooperation is appreciated) - Here’s a radical idea: Do not thank people for what they will do for you in the future. That’s presumptuous. Just thank them for what they’ve done in the past. If you are asking something that is no big deal, just say “please.” If, on the other hand, you are trying to motivate your reader to do something he or she doesn’t want to do, thank you won’t help. You’ll have to motivate the reader, just as you’d have to motivate a child when trying to get action. “Thank you” may be polite but it hardly is a motivator.