Help! I’m in a new job and have to write formal business letters…but how?

business letters,writing,business writing,formal businessDear HTWB Agony Columns

I’ve just joined a very traditionally-minded firm that still sends out formal business letters to clients. They expect me to know how to set them out as well as write them. What’s the right way to go about this? [Read more…]

Why marketing messages are so important – and so hard to get right

Like a house of cards, a marketing message takes a long, painstaking time to build up yet only moments to knock down.

Sometimes all it takes is a one little piece of thoughtless communication that contradicts your marketing message. Before you know it, your company is being ridiculed in the newspapers and becomes laugh of the month across all your business’s most influential online networking platforms and the social media.

A gold medal for Gerald

This is an extreme example, but some years ago a British retail jewelry magnate named Gerald Ratner made a joking yet derisive comment about his company’s products during an after-dinner speech.

The press picked it up. And by the next day, customers nationwide were deeply offended. Within a week business in all of his retail outlets (there was a Ratner’s on nearly every British “High Street”) had dried up to mere shadows of their former sales figures.

Ratner’s stock values similarly dried up after another few days. Eventually, so did Ratner. And all for a few ill-chosen words.

Everyone must be singing the same message

Of course, the boss is highly accountable. His comments carry far more weight than those uttered by a disgruntled young Jack in Customer Service. If Jack does it the damage may only be a trickle rather than a stream, but trickles can be an expensive pain. (Remember the last time you had a leaking pipe at home?)

Even so, Jack writing or saying something offhanded / snooty / too friendly / too formal / illiterate / etcetera can make your marketing message look embarrassingly one-dimensional and fatuous. And luck being what it is, Jack only does it once, but he’ll do it to your most important customer.

“We try harder” (a famous marketing message from Avis car rental years ago) wouldn’t ring very true if you’re five minutes late to pick up a desperately-needed rental car and you find a note on the door saying “office closed, try tomorow (sic).” One, that’s not trying harder and two, spelling matters, because it can reflect on your company’s credibility.

How to secure the marketing message

So, how do you ensure consistency throughout the organization and avoid human nature’s natural propensity for rather romantic interpretations of your marketing message?

Here are some suggestions.

1. Above all else, remember that message consistency is not just about using the company letterhead or email sig file or corporate blog. The message has to work for everyone in the organization and be a part of their psyche. They have to believe, so you have to give them something they can believe in.

2. You need to appoint someone – the right someone – as message consistency champion. The consistency champion must be not only someone with the ability to ensure consistency of message across departments, but also someone who has the corporate grunt to make it happen.

3. Train, train, train and share information. Don’t bamboozle your staff with marketing-speak. Talk to them in real terms, because they’re real people. Work out how the various groups and departments should implement the marketing messages in what they do and show them how to do it. Don’t leave it to them. They don’t get paid to think broad-spectrum. You do.

4. You should ensure that people who understand marketing messages at a spoken level can also write them down. Often they can’t make the switch between spoken and written. Training in business writing helps overcome the problem (see below).

5. In a larger company create a communications “manual” that lays down how messages should be interpreted and implemented across all departments who put out company messages. And please, make sure everyone can relate to it. No corporate cotton wool or jargon.

6. Ensure that any tweaks or changes you make to marketing messages are properly and fully communicated to every department who needs to know – not just the marketing people.

7. When recruiting employees who will be communicating with people outside the company (inside’s important, too) find out if the “good communication skills” on their resume means just that – not simply that they tell good jokes after a few beers.

8. Invest in some basic training in business writing skills for ALL employees who will write stuff, even internally. That can include admin staff, technical people, dispatch/delivery/logistics staff, accounts/credit controllers, HR staffers, trainers, sales and after sales people, etc. The right kind of business writing training won’t just teach them how to write for written or spoken communication messages. It will also help them organize their thoughts so your messages work across everything they issue. Bear that in mind when you’re selecting courses for them.

And if you follow all of the above? Well, it may not mean your house of cards is set in concrete.

But it’ll stand up to much stronger winds than the company whose sales people imply one message and whose delivery people imply another one and whose technical support people imply yet another.


An earlier version of this article first appeared on the US website

Many thanks to these sources for the kind loan of the following images:



Milk Marketing

Now, let’s get your  marketing messages right:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Do you know how to “make your case” in business communications?

How to make your case in a piece of business communication is about the same length as that proverbial piece of string, because the variation from a 6-word mobile text advertisement at one end of the scale to a 60-page business plan at the other doesn’t involve too many similarities, as you know.  So it’s not something that easily fits into a formula.

However for the formula-lovers among us, I’ve done my best, and here it is…

Most of the time you can look at making your case through this trio of “tions…”




You begin with a notion (statement of fact and/or proposition plus key benefit to audience, why you are reading/watching/listening to this and why you should continue to the end, what this is and what’s in it for you)…

…which you need to support immediately with information (why your notion is important, how the benefit has been made possible, why the notion is more important than/more beneficial than what other organizations do) …

… and eventually, whether after each notion or after a group of notions, you introduce action (what the anticipated outcome is, what will happen next, what you need to do next, and a brief reprise of why.)

The three “tions” pretty much cover all

As I said, there are huge variations depending on the subject matter, the message and the media, but as a rough guide I believe the three “tions” should be treated as equally important.  Obviously that doesn’t mean measuring it out in equal numbers of words – only equal importance in the “weight” you allocate to them.

Many examples of corporate communication don’t work because one of the “tions” has assumed a far greater role than the other two.  This is especially true of the classic “corporate” brochure where there are pages and pages about the organization and what it does and how it does it (information) but nothing is said about what it’s doing in the reader’s hands in the first place (no notion).

Ask yourself these questions

Another helpful tool in making your case is to ask yourself this list of key questions, having first cast yourself in the role of the audience.  Then, ensure that what you write answers those questions, in the same order.  This is the basis of any reasoned argument, really. You can also see how it works in a completely different context by reading copy in press advertisements or direct mail, and in a miniaturized version in many TV commercials or online ads.  In a more restrained way you’ll see it working in editorial pieces and even medical or academic papers and theses.

Why am receiving this communication from you? (The message in a nutshell, the main notion, a little information to support it, and a strong hint of required action)

So what’s the problem? (Information about why the notion is valid, what has led up to it, the issues your notion addresses)

What else should I know about? (Related sub-notions that add relevance, information to support them)

And you have the solution? (Main notion again in more detail, supported by information on how it will work in practice)

What happens next? (Action – try to state why they should do what you say, or why the next steps will make an improvement, etc., so the action offers some kind of reward – something “in it for them.”  Otherwise it will just read/sound like instructions or unsubstantiated predictions.)

Make sure you get your case across in all your business communication:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English