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Are your words working for you?

Are Your Words Working for You?

A recent study by the Dartnell Institute of Business Research estimated that the average business letter costs $9 to produce and send. With that kind of outlay, we have to get a return on every letter we send out. Every letter has to be effective.

Define your objectives

The first step in writing an effective business letter is to think about what you are trying to accomplish before putting pen to paper. For property managers, a letter or similar piece of writing would probably fall into one of three categories:

* To get action - sign this lease, pay the rent, get it done now, stop doing it.

* To build goodwill - sorry about the slow maintenance, hope you like the property, come to a party.

* To convey information - the fee will be $2,000, the exterminator will be here on Friday, a new manager has been appointed.

Decide which of these objects, or which combination of these, you are trying to accomplish before you begin to write. Ask yourself: Why am I writing this letter? What do I want to say?

An example

You receive a letter from a major tenant in an office building you manage. He writes: "An important client who recently came to see me was unable to find a place to park in front of the building. Not only were all of the visitors' spaces full; there was not a vacant space anywhere. I cannot have clients forced to walk three blocks to do business with me. I want this situation remedied immediately."

What should your response be?

To calm this situation, try to build goodwill with empathy. Perhaps you could also convey a little information if you can offer any immediate remedies to the problems.

Techniques for meeting objectives

Take the "you" attitude in writing. Most people are primarily interested in what is in it for them. Making the shift from "I" to "you" strengthens and personalizes your letter. Sentences using "you" allow you to appear to adopt the reader's point of view and enables you to identify with the reader.

For example, the following sentences can be easily reframed to put the emphasis on "you:"

* "I've enclosed an invoice" can become "Your invoice is enclosed."

* "I recommend you consider the following" can be transformed into "Please consider the following recommendation."

Use short, simple words instead of the long, drawn out ones. Do not write to impress, but to express. President Reagan is considered "the Great Communicator," yet his statements are simple, straightforward.

Verbose: "Extension of the escalation payment period is permissible only within the days attendant the grace period in compliance with the citation relevant to the tenant remedies so we are estopped from acquiescing to an extension. We are confident that an investigation relevant to the extension will substantiate that the policy is not at variance with policies of other companies."

Simple: "Unfortunately, company policy does not allow us to extend the deadline for your escalation payment."

Likewise, high blown words can often be replaced with simpler ones:

* "utilize" becomes "use,"

* "demonstrate" becomes "show,"

* "ascertain" becomes "understand,"

* "consequence" becomes "result,"

* "endeavor" becomes "try."

You should also try to select a word that truly says what you mean. For example, when we see the word "presently" we think of "present," or "now." An owner who receives a letter saying, "Construction will begin presently," may misinterpret what you mean. Indeed, a recent study of Yale University graduating seniors found that 60 percent believed that the word "subsequent" meant before. Be sure you select simple words whose meanings are clear to most readers.

Use words that are believable. There is an interesting contrast in unbelievable word combinations, for example, "fresh frozen fish." Unbelievability also comes from making statements that could not be true. Writing to a prospective tenant, you might say, "I know you will be excited about this project." In reality, how can you know what will excite them? A better statement might be, "You may find this project as exciting as we have." "I hope" might also be substituted for "I know," but that choice conveys a lack of confidence in the project.

Avoid overused words and phrases that hinder the sincerity, truthfulness, and integrity of your letters. Readers of letters are quicker to detect insincerity than any other quality.

Avoid: "Allow me to make a suggestion." Write instead: "I recommend. . ."

Avoid: "Attached please find. . ." Write instead: "Attached is. . ."

Avoid: ". . .at your disposal." Write instead:" . . .available to meet with you."

Consider tone, voice,

and complexity

The proper tone establishes sensitivity to the reader, and shows we "talk their language" and are writing to them as human beings instead of names.

Negative: "We cannot process your application without items A and B completed." Positive: "Your application can be processed as soon as you complete items A and B."

Negative: "Your service request cannot be completed without proper authorization from your company." Positive: "Proper authorization from your company is needed to proceed with your service request."

Ask yourself: Is the reader's carelessness implied? "You neglected to..." "You failed to..."

Ask yourself: Has the reader been called a liar? "You claim that..." "You say that..."

Ask yourself: Are the words too authoritarian? "You should..." "I must ask you to..."

Some words have negative connotations (or implications) and should be avoided:
complain impossible refuse
criticize inadequate neglect
damage inconvenienced not entitled to
defective inferior oversight
delayed misinformed unable
dispute mistake unfortunately
failure must unreasonable


Active voice is direct, forceful, and personal. It eliminates the roundabout wordiness of the passive voice, which is indirect and impersonal. A good rule to use in keeping sentences direct and active is: Place the doer of action (noun or pronoun) at the beginning of the sentence.

Passive: "An extension of the expiration date was requested by the tenant." Active: "The tenant requested an extension of the expiration date."

Passive: "Consideration is being given to your request by the building owner." Active: "The building owner is considering your request."

Another suggestion for more direct, active writing is to avoid the use of "There is" and "It is." These and similar expressions put the sentence into a passive mode.

Vary sentence complexity. We usually get into difficulty by confusing our reader once we step into the compound and complex sentences. These sentences are nothing more than several related ideas connected together. The difficulty is in how we make the connection.

Confusing: "Please tell us in detail the date and exactly what you were doing at the time you fell on the lower portion of this letter." Clear: "Please tell us on the lower portion of this letter the date you fell and exactly what you were doing."

Use short sentences. A Yale undergraduate study recently pointed out the effectiveness of shorter sentences on the comprehension level of the reader. Shorter sentences increased the number of students understanding 90 percent of what they read from 18 to 93. This same study suggested using 14 to 18 words per sentence and 5 to 7 sentences per paragraph to make writing more comprehensible.


The scientist Pascal, in a postscript to a 20-page letter written in 1656, said: "I hope you will pardon me for writing such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a shorter one." A short, well-organized business letter takes more time than a wordy one because an effective letter requires thought and a willingness to eliminate unnecessary words and ideas. Every words should do its job.

In the last analysis, the key to "making your words work for you" is to think before you write, write carefully, and rewrite thoroughly. In our business, wasted words mean wasted time and money.

Howard K. Lundeen, CPM[R], is president of Kelley Lundeen, Inc., a full-service brokerage and property management firm located in Dallas. He is currently president-elect of the local IREM chapter and an instructor for Course 302 on the national IREM faculty.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:business communication
Author:Lundeen, Howard K.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Previous Article:Solving real estate issues by arbitration.
Next Article:Tips for better business letters.

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