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Gary Blake
Director, The COmmunication Workshop
Port Washington, New York
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The 17 Most Deadly Words in Business Writing

By eliminating the following 17 phrases, you can, in a single stroke, improve your company’s image, gain productivity, get information quicker, and cut thousands of wasted words.
Written Jul 04, 2010, read 9434 times since then.
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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.

Learn more about the author, Gary Blake.

Comment on this article

  • Entrepreneur 
Seattle, Washington 
Michael Hartzell
    Posted by Michael Hartzell, Seattle, Washington | Jul 05, 2010

    To Whom It May Concern,

    Please be advised I have read your article. Respectfully, I gave it serious consideration. Kindly take my thoughts tongue in cheek. I am forwarding this to no one else. The above referenced notes are no less serious than those below. ASAP: Read and respond. Please note that I may miss a few of the examples.. I trust that you will want me to finalize this response post haste. Respectfully, your itemization is noted and Dear Sir or Madam will no longer be used.

    Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

    Yours very truly,

    Michael @michaelhartzell

    PS Thanks for making me SMink = Smile and Think at the same time.

  • Tax Professional and IRS Representation 
Blaine, Washington 
Bill Bradfield, EA
    Posted by Bill Bradfield, EA, Blaine, Washington | Jul 05, 2010

    Gary,

    The above referenced message says it all.

    Bill

    P.S. Very good article.

  • Award Winning Business Coach, Consultant, Speaker and Author 
Fort Worth, Texas 
Jeffrey Summers
    Posted by Jeffrey Summers, Fort Worth, Texas | Jul 05, 2010
    1. Great thoughts in here.
    2. I hate the anonymous rating system.
  • Consultant 
Santa Rosa, California 
Glenn Mattsson
    Posted by Glenn Mattsson, Santa Rosa, California | Jul 05, 2010

    Great article Gary,

    I agree with you and avoid MOST of them, but #14 I've used and it always creeps me out when I do. Now I'll never use it again.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • Entrepreneur 
Seattle, Washington 
Michael Hartzell
    Posted by Michael Hartzell, Seattle, Washington | Jul 05, 2010

    "I hate the anonymous rating system." Ditto. :)

  • Marketing Consultant 
Nanuet, New York 
Julie Weishaar
    Posted by Julie Weishaar, Nanuet, New York | Jul 06, 2010

    Nice article Gary :) Your points would work well if one were a robot right? I think it is important for our communications to show that we are human and be a little more personal. Funny as many of your examples were correct many years ago in the corporate world - but not today. I do have to admit that I do use #17. I will have to re-think that one. I don't use it to be presumptuous or to motivate the reader - I assume (I know - one should never "assume" - we know what that makes us LOL) the body of my communications has already provided the motivation. I had better think that one through before using it again :)

    Thanks for sharing your insights in a witty way!

  • Director of New Business Development 
Fredericksburg, Virginia 
Lisa Pecunia
    Posted by Lisa Pecunia, Fredericksburg, Virginia | Jul 06, 2010

    I just used #17 last week and now I am cringing!

    Funny how I look at these phrases on communications I receive and think "oh how smarmy." but then I go ahead and do it. Doh!

    Thank you.

    Best regards, Lisa

    P.S. I always use "Best regards", and I always mean it sincerely. I recently met a gentleman who uses "Warmly," which at first I liked but it grew old fast. Go figure.

  • Social Media Strategist to the pet-industry stars & Dog Walker 
Seattle, Washington 
Jessica Rae W
    Posted by Jessica Rae W, Seattle, Washington | Jul 07, 2010

    Good Article Gary -

    I especially liked your point in using ASAP. I think that term leads to a great deal of frustration and confusion. I would venture to say that EVERY time "as soon as possible" is used that the sender and recipient have different ideas of what that means! Just be clear and ask for what you need. That way the recipient knows when you actually expect X, you know when you can expect it and both of you can be held accountable for the results.

    Jessica

  • Author. Entreprenuer. 
Ojai, California 
Jason Womack
    Posted by Jason Womack, Ojai, California | Nov 27, 2010

    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].”

    Gary,

    You've won me over with this advice! Just that one line in your article would save many people time and energy, as well as reduce the stress of collaboration.

    Thank you for this piece of advice. I'm gonna use this one!

  • SEO Consultant 
Jersey City, New Jersey 
Elvis Arias
    Posted by Elvis Arias, Jersey City, New Jersey | Feb 02, 2011

    thanks for sharing, very timely

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