Business correspondence is a very formulaic affair. Formal letters are always structured in the same way and various rules must be observed in order to establish respectful communication, no matter what the occasion for the letter is. Read valuable tips and background knowledge on your business correspondence, whether by e-mail or letter. We have also created a practical checklist for you – just download and print it out!
1. Media: e-mail, letter and greeting card – basics of communication
The medium of your business correspondence requires its own approach, since a letter is associated with completely different expectations than an e-mail, for example. Basic rules on salutation, style and wording apply in business letters regardless of the medium.
Business letters should always be formulated in a factual and customer-oriented manner. Accordingly, the reader should be addressed directly. In this way, the customer feels directly at the center of the correspondence, which is particularly well received by customers. For this purpose, "you" formulations have proven their worth. Formulations from the "I" or "we" perspective quickly appear patronizing to the recipient, especially when it is a matter of communicating decisions to him/her. If a letter is written on behalf of the company, the "we" form makes sense, but should still only be used to a limited extent.
Tips for your business letters:
- Sentences should clearly arranged be designed. Nested sentences make it difficult to understand – replace them with independent sentences.
- Active formulations appear much more dynamic and personal than passive.
- Formulate rather a firm statement instead of subjunctive to use; this comes across as authoritative and confident.
- Phrases unnecessarily inflate the letter; instead, you should Short and precise formulations choose. Readers are usually grateful for concise letters that get to the heart of their content. In addition, clear formulations create an honest and personal impression, whereas texts with many content phrases tend to make readers suspicious.
- Regular Paragraphs make a text more accessible in terms of the overall picture and allow a thematic structure that the reader can easily grasp.
The salutation is the first impression a letter conveys. The classic form of address is "Dear Sir or Madam", especially if no specific person is the recipient. If the recipient is known to you, be sure to name him/her.
In the event that more than one person is to be addressed, the order is clearly established:
Women are addressed first if they have the same position; otherwise, superiors and higher-ranking persons should be mentioned first. Academic titles are also included in the address, in order of importance from the highest to the lowest title. However, master’s, bachelor’s or master’s titles are not mentioned, and diploma titles are not usually used unless the recipient attaches particular importance to them.
Accordingly: "Dear Professor. Dr. Mustermann, …"
If contact has existed for a long time, the salutation does not necessarily have to be so formal and the following formulations can be used.
- "Good day Mrs./Mr., …"
- "Good morning Mrs./Mr., …"
- "Dear Mrs/Mr, …"
- "Dear Sir/Madam, …"
If the relationship is not quite clear, you should always choose the more formal salutation. Here it is important to develop a sense of the relationship with the reader and the current situation. Loose wording should only be used if the recipient is well known to you personally. With the more polite variant, however, you are always on the safe side.
The classic greeting at the end is "Yours sincerely" and is placed on the left below the body of the text. It is better to avoid abbreviations such as "MfG", as they come across as aloof and hasty. Archaic formulations such as "Yours sincerely" have also not been used for some time. In the case of a closer relationship, the letter can also be concluded with "Many greetings" or "Best wishes".
Especially if there has only been written contact, you should formulate the salutation and greeting rather cautiously.
Unless otherwise required, use the present tense in business letters.
The format of business letters is always the same and is regulated by DIN standard 5008.
- In Letterhead The sender’s data such as name, address, but also further information such as telephone and fax number, e-mail address and website are placed below the title.
- The Recipient address is structured as follows:
Salutation First name Last name
Additions such as floor/department
Street and house number/ P.O. Box
Zip code and city
If the letter is being sent outside Germany, the country of destination must also be mentioned. The date is placed in the right margin below the recipient’s name. The reference blog is positioned above the subject line and contains the name of the contact person as well as the e-mail address, telephone number, date and personal sign.
- In the Subject line The subject or reason for the cover letter should be stated as briefly and accurately as possible. The text itself should be printed in an easily readable font and should not be smaller than font size eleven. Letters are formatted either left-justified or justified.
For formal letters, certain writing and design rules apply.
1.5. Formulating negative messages
Even if you have to deliver negative news, the tenor of your text should be positive. Negative signal words such as "none", "unfortunately" or "not" should be avoided, as well as negative sentence constructions as well as possible avoid, because the reader sticks to these words, so that possible displeasure about negative messages is intensified even more. An alternative formulation for "unfortunately" would be "to our regret".
If possible, immediately after the negative fact, a positive proposal for a solution to be placed. In the case of a complaint, for example, a replacement can be held out in prospect. In addition, as far as possible, the reasons for the situation should be included. In this way, the receiver can understand decisions and is also more willing to show understanding of the situation.
If the cancellation is of a meeting, it should be formulated in such a way that further contact is still kept open. It is best to suggest an alternative date or to offer the prospect of another opportunity.
If it is a reminder, there is no need to threaten legal consequences immediately. Better suited are formulations that remind the recipient of his or her obligations without implying malicious intentions. For example "Perhaps you have our invoice from xx.xx. overlook?". In particular, when the first payment reminder is sent to otherwise reliable customers, a friendly formulation often has a much better effect. In the best case, it was only a mishap anyway and the customer, after the reminder, makes an effort to quickly comply with the payment. In the case of a harshly worded reminder, it is quite possible that the customer will not fulfill his obligation out of anger.
Negative messages should be accompanied by a positive entry The sign itself can be linked to the recipient, for example, by thanking him for the previous cooperation or the interest in the product. In the case of a complaint, an apology may also be appropriate. These formulations should, however, be as not cliched but convey sincere appreciation to the counterpart.
2. Excursus: Communication models according to Buhler, Jakobson& Maletzke
One of the best known communication models is the organon model according to Karl Buhler. This model takes its name from Plato’s Cratylus, in which Plato describes the word, and thus language as a whole, as an organon, i.e., a tool, with which one person communicates to another.
In the center of the model is the linguistic sign. It divides into the perceptible sound (the circle around the Z) and the uttered word, sentence or sound. All three sides of the triangle connect the sender, the receiver and the objects and circumstances to which the linguistic sign refers. The sender is the one who speaks, while the receiver is the listener. The sender uses the linguistic sign to express himself, which is illustrated by the lines from the sender to the triangle. The utterance invites the receiver to react; this corresponds to the lines from the sign to the receiver.
There is always a difference between the sign itself and the linguistic utterance, and also room for misinterpretation or additional information. This is represented by Buhler in that the circle and triangle have overlaps but are not congruent.
The Russian philologist and linguist Roman Osipovich Jakobson extended Buhler’s model by further forms and functions, thus enlarging it from three to six links.
According to Jakobson, six factors are active in a linguistic utterance: sender, receiver, context, communication, contact, and code. The sender sends the message and thus reveals about himself and his current emotional state. As with Buhler, an appeal is made to the recipient, a request for action. The context describes the environment in which the linguistic utterance is integrated. This can be, for example, a preceding sentence. The message has a poetic function, which means that it has been formulated purposefully, for example, with a pun or using specific vocabulary. Contact describes the medium used, i.e., a face-to-face conversation, a letter, or a message on a smartphone. Its task is phatic, i.e. to establish and maintain contact. The code designates meta-linguistic information, which is additionally transmitted, for example a gesture or a certain tone of voice. In the written medium, this can be done, among other things, through the deliberate use of interjections such as "well" or "oops".
Context and code are prerequisites for successful communication, because if two people do not share the same background, misunderstandings are bound to occur.
Communication scientist Gerhard Maletzke designed a communication model that departs from the principle of "one sender to one receiver" and incorporates the phenomenon of mass media.
According to Maletzke, the communicator (K) produces a statement (A) and shapes it according to his means, or selects the material. Personal factors also play a role here, such as the image that the communicator has of him/herself, what role he/she plays in the news team. This is done under the constraint of publicity, which means that its message and the way it is framed have a great impact, as it is not only sent between two parties. The statement (A) is now transmitted to the recipient (R) by a medium (R). The medium can be television, radio or the Internet.
Every message passes through a number of filters before it reaches the recipient.
The communicator is bound by certain specifications, such as the sending time or format, as well as the specific requirements of the medium in question. The recipient also chooses what to consume from a variety of offerings. The communicator has a certain image of the recipient of his offer, just as the recipient has an idea of the communicator and his possibilities. It is not only since the Internet that recipients have had the opportunity to react to the statement made. Letters to the editor, comments or live chats allow recipients to participate and influence what is being sent.
The model illustrates above all how many filters a statement passes through until it finally reaches the recipient, who in turn has an individual knowledge background and may not even be able to understand the sent statement as the communicator had intended.
3. letter or e-mail? Special features depending on the medium
Jakobson and Maletzke’s communication model in particular illustrates the great importance of the medium used to transmit a message. A large part of business communication takes place in writing. Non-verbal signs such as gestures or tone of voice cannot be used here, accordingly it is important to be as circumspect as possible when writing. The fact that business letters are usually very formulaic actually simplifies communication at this point, provided that all parties involved have the same information background and are aware of these specifications.
Different expectations are placed on an e-mail than on a letter. Again, formulate it formally and politely.
In times of e-mail and messengers, which allow a quick exchange, the expectations of communication have changed, especially via these media. Especially with e-mails, a quick response is often expected, and since sending is free of charge, more e-mails are often exchanged than would actually be necessary. Many are now overloaded in the face of the veritable flood of messages in their mailboxes. Therefore, when communicating via e-mail, the following applies even more than with a letter: accommodate the recipient as much as possible.
This already begins with the use of the Answer function. Of course, it is useful to have context for the current message, however, this should be reduced to the bare minimum become. If, for example, at some point the signatures of the business partners line up endlessly or too many lines disturb the overall picture, at least parts of the preceding communication should be deleted before sending.
At the end of the e-mail should be a Signature be set, which always remains the same. Often these are built up within a company according to the same scheme; this must be absolutely kept to Uniformity be guaranteed. The signature should also include the recipient’s name, extension and fax number, e-mail address, and professional position. This way the recipient can see at a glance who he is dealing with at the moment.
In addition, since 2007, not only postal correspondence, but also electronic correspondence must contain all information about the company be indicated. Failure to do so may result in a fine. Include: Address, managing director, place of business, competent registration court, commercial register number.
Although e-mail communication invites you to process it very quickly, senders should take care to formulate and design it carefully.
A Salutation should not be missing, if only for the sake of politeness. The rules already mentioned above apply here. The wording should be politely detached and businesslike. Smileys are highly inappropriate in business correspondence and should not be used under any circumstances. Excessive design of the typeface should also be avoided, as well as the insertion of images that are not essential for communication.
Letters are a haptic means of communication. Recipients take them in their hands and usually file them in a filing system afterwards. Accordingly, the paper used also conveys a statement about the sender company.
The Print should be sent accordingly high quality out. A blurry typeface is not only harder to read, it also gives the impression of little care and appreciation for the recipient. About the DIN 5008 standard are the Dimensions and layout of business letters clearly regulated. You will find more detailed information and a standard letter template at Deutsche Post.
Law firms, banks and insurance companies, in particular, should use a standard letter high quality paper for their correspondence. Environmental paper can be used, but it should still leave a good quality impression and not be too gray.
Creative agencies can also provide their letters with their colorful company logo, however, the letter should not be too colorful in order not to reduce readability.
Your business partners will be pleased with carefully designed and legible letters.
3.3. Greeting card
greeting cards can be sent on occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries, even in the context of a business relationship. In the business world, congratulations should be delivered with a personal touch, but still with due distance and politeness. Inappropriate are, for example, flashy cards or those with exaggeratedly witty sayings.
Even if the business partners are on a first-name basis in normal dealings, a more formal form of address and the "Sie" form should be chosen for greeting cards. Wishes that are too personal quickly come across as aloof, so it is best to choose classic greetings such as "We would like to congratulate you on your umpteenth birthday and wish you success and, above all, good health."
If you have been in good contact with the agency for many years, you can also use this space to thank them for their previous cooperation.
As with a business letter, the paper used is the figurehead of the message. Accordingly, use the highest quality paper possible for the card and envelope. If the congratulations are printed by machine, a handwritten signature should still be added to give the letter a personal touch. In addition, a self-signed card expresses the appreciation much better.
4. No-Gos in business communication
Many pitfalls in business communication have already been mentioned in the course of this text, but some mistakes are so weighty that they can have a lasting effect on further communication or immediately disqualify the sender as a serious business partner.
5. How-to for appropriate wording in business cover letters (explained with three examples)
The following examples are intended to provide a rough outline of the techniques explained above. For each business partner, of course, individual consideration must be given to the appropriate form of address, how greetings should be phrased, and how best to present the purpose of the letter.
An example of a short, polite email rejection letter.
Business letters must be written in accordance with the DIN 5008 standard. This also includes specific information about how many paragraphs to put between which sections. In the example below, the paragraphs are marked with an empty circle.
5.3. Greeting card
Greeting cards are a balancing act between business detachment and personal approach. Formulations should therefore not be chosen too exuberantly. The design of the card may be varied, as long as the design is not too playful. A quote from a well-known poet, for example, is also a nice way to begin.
6. Checklist: Summary of essential aspects for business communication
Precisely because business communication is very formulaic, each letter should be approached with particular care. The content of the text should be precise and positive, even if negative news is delivered. Politeness is the highest commandment, even in the case of a reminder or criticism. Do not use dusty wording with unnecessary flourishes; they distract too much from the essentials.
Use these Checklist, To review your business cover letter for the most common pitfalls.
Our free checklist summarizes all the important points about business correspondence for you.
When it comes to cards and letters, the visual structure plays an important role, as does the paper used. Discover our cards for all occasions and use them to leave a positive impression on your business partners and customers. How to take care of your B2B contacts and congratulate them appropriately, you can read in our article "Anniversary, Birthday and Co.How to congratulate your business partners correctly".
Image sources: Image 1: © gettyimages/ Ridofranz; Image 2: © gettyimages/Cineberg; Image 3: © gettyimages/ Svetikd; Image 4: © gettyimages/ Nastco; Image 5: © gettyimages/fizkes; Image 6: © gettyimages/Tom Merton