Thursday, 28 November 2013

Overcoming Our Phobia Of Formal Writing


Scenario 1

You are the Facilities/Admin Manager and have been charged to find a solution to a tricky issue. You are required to write an "official letter" to your company's most important vendor to complain about the misdirected equipment and supplies for an important seminar-cum-conference event; an error which has indirectly cost your company significant losses in revenue. As a result, your company is required to postpone its annual event to an off-peak season, thereby eroding its profit margin for the financial year. You are expected to convince the vendor, as a sign of goodwill, to promptly reimburse the company for the losses.

Scenario 2

You are the Regional Sales Manager of a high-volume location in charge of a team of 50 professionals. One of the sales executives, who has worked in your company for at least five years, (and who really  should have known better), 'lost' stock worth Xmillion due to incompetence, negligence or both. You are required to write a memo to 'Management' at the head-office to:

I)    Provide details of the problem;
II)   Recommend actions to take to recoup the loss; 
III)  Advise on a penalty for the executive.

This unfortunate incident took place when you were off-base, attending an important meeting, so your hands-on knowledge is limited.

So what is likely to happen?

You panic.

Then you panic some more when you realise that in either of the two scenarios listed above, your job is on the line. Getting out relatively unscathed depends on how effectively you are able to convey your message. At the end of your letter/memo/email, there shouldn't be a "so what?" question or any ambiguity.

As professionals, we all need to 'get over' our crippling fear of formal writing as we are unlikely to avoid this important exercise throughout our careers.

Yes, we should take formal or business writing seriously enough to be concerned but we should  also realise that in order to overcome this dread, we simply have to 'do' it. And consistently. In spite of our fear. The more we write, the better we get. It really is that simple.

As a communications advocate, I have stressed the need for simplicity and flexibility  in all our communications in 'Corporateville'.

For more specific communications about a corporate message, initiative or for actions impacting brand/reputation, I formulated a communications strategy comprising six ridiculously simple but essential components that could be customised for specific needs. I cannot recommend it enough; it is useful for a delivery which would 'stick'.

My stint in 'Corporateville'


I once worked as a commercial officer and business developer in a foreign embassy and for a trade council. I must have written numerous formal letters to companies, financial institutions, governmental agencies and international clients. My dual role was new and there were few templates for such official communications. I had to learn on the job, as well as learn the appropriate titles to use for diplomatic personnel,  government officials etc.

Concurrently, I held a board membership position at a bilateral chamber of commerce, which had newly been incorporated. As its first Executive Secretary, my writing assignments were multiplied. This meant that I had the challenging responsibility for crafting speeches for the President and Vice-President of the chamber;  for handling all formal communications for the chamber's activities; and for setting up standard templates. It's a wonder I was able to handle my dual role at the foreign embassy/trade council, as well as my responsibilities at the bilateral chamber.

Tips for writing formal letters

As I progressed in my commercial officer/business developer/executive secretary roles, I came to realise three crucial points which are non-negotiable for successful communications:

A) Knowing your recipient/audience

Find out details about the recipient.  Prior to drafting the letter, make enquiries. Ensure that you are clear about official positions of the recipient and titles by which he must be addressed; as well as the correct spelling of his name. It is also useful to enquire about the procedure or protocol for  sending official documentation.

So for example, if you are writing to a head of mission or an ambassador of an embassy, after listing appropriate addresses, your salutation should be:

"Good Morning/Afternoon Your Excellency",

You should end the letter with:

"Yours respectfully”; "Yours faithfully"; "Yours sincerely"; or other appropriate closings.

All official letters must be drafted on premium or high-quality company letterhead. For a more ‘professional’ look, I would recommend that a company seal be affixed.

If you are writing to other professionals, including CEOs, leaders of industry and high-ranking experts, the same standard holds true - remember their titles and begin with a standard greeting such as:

"Dear Mr./Mrs./Dr./Professor X.".

Remain in the 'professional' mode throughout your letter and avoid contracted versions in your writing style. So use: “We did not” and “We could not”; instead of “We didn’t” and “We couldn't". Always end with a formal phrase.

B) Recognising the beauty of simple language

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" - Leonardo da Vinci

Here it is again: the point about keeping everything simple.


The greatest impact you could have with your formal communications would be guaranteed when you use simple language, shorter sentences and when you convey a powerful 'call-to-action'. (This would be the action you request for the recipient to take after reading your letter).

Do not be tempted to use 'big' words because when inappropriate, they elicit ridicule. You do not want to be 'laughed off' an opportunity. Besides, redundant words and complicated jargon make your message ambiguous. Lack of clarity is the bane of effective writing. We should all strive to avoid it.

Take a cue from Leonardo, the renowned Renaissance-era Italian painter/sculptor/architect/inventor - just simplify everything.


C) Proof-reading several times



Edit the document for various grammatical errors; check syntax, (word order in a sentence/sentence structure etc.); semantics, (meanings of words); and spellings. Special attention should be given to coherence and fluidity. One paragraph must 'flow' seamlessly to the next. Your letter should not be a series of disjointed ideas. Unless you are drafting a letter about a serious issue or making a detailed request that requires some analysis, as a general rule, keep your message short. Try to limit it to a maximum of 4-5 short paragraphs on a single page. Respect the time of your recipient and get to your point quickly.


Free samples of formal letters

Below are free formats of formal letters1 that I have drafted: to a foreign Ambassador;  to a Minister or top government official of your country; from 'Management'; to staff;  and to a company. They could be tweaked and edited as needed.

1) Letter to the ambassador of a foreign country requesting for an appointment to discuss trade and investment opportunities.


                                                                                November  X, 2013

His/Her Excellenc(G1) 
Ambassador X. Y
Embassy’s address


Good Afternoon Your Excellency,

(Make your request)

We write to humbly request for an appointment to discuss trade and investment opportunities between X companies and our organisation.

(Acknowledge recipient’s professional achievement or notable works)

We applaud the progress made by your esteemed office in promoting mutually-beneficial trade and investment opportunities between our countries. Your dogged efforts have resulted in a X% increase in trade activities since you began your official appointment in Xyear. We believe that there exist many opportunities for further progress. To this end, kindly permit us to introduce our company.

(Introduce your company)

We, XCompany Limited/Incorporated, are a reputable multinational operating in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, with head-office in Xlocation and branches across the Xcontinent and in Europe/the Americas/Asia. We employ X professionals in Y countries. Last year, our turnover was USDX billion, with net profit of USDY billion. This year, we are poised to increase our revenue by Z%. Moreover, in accordance with our focus on quality and operational excellence, we are committed to investing USDZ billion in the next Nyears in research and cutting-edge technology to enhance our manufacturing capacity.


We would be honoured if you could kindly grant us audience, at your convenience, to discuss the aforementioned issue in detail.

(Standard closing)


While awaiting your response, Your Excellency, we wish to thank you for your time and kind consideration.

Yours respectfully,

Your signature

                                        (Seal) (G2)                                                           

Your name

Your title

Your company name

Your contact details

2) Letter to a minister; a top-ranking government official; a governor of a state/president of a country etc. requesting for patronage of company services.


                                                                               November X, 2013

Dr./Mr./Mrs. X. Y (G3)
Honourable Minister of Energy


Honourable Minister (G4) Sir/Madam,

It is with great respect and deep humility that we are writing to you. As  patriotic Xnationality, we applaud your esteemed self and all your committed staff on the successful reforms embarked upon/spear-headed/promoted by your administration within the oil and gas sector, under you visionary leadership.

Honourable Minister Sir/Madam, we are grateful for according us an opportunity to introduce our company: Xname Limited/Incorporated,  for your kind consideration.

Presentation of XCompany Limited/Incorporated

XCompany Limited/Incorporated. was established in Xyear to provide affordable but cutting-edge engineering services in the oil and gas sector.

Since its inception, it has recorded (G5)

XCompany Limited/Incorporated seeks to provide expertise in the sections below:

  •   XXX
  •   YYY
  •   ZZZ   (G6)

Short–term and long–term business goals: (G7)   

Honourable Minister Sir/Madam, as mentioned in the paragraph above, it is our immediate goal to introduce high–quality engineering services into the nation’s oil and gas sector to enhance production.

The drive to encourage local players in the sector via the XInitiative  of the Ygovernmental agency is  applauded. In furtherance to the desire of the Federal Government/Parliament/Congress to secure more active participation of local players in the sector, our long–term goals will be:

* To establish...;


To become key investors in the manufacture of  Xproducts for the oil and gas sector on our shores. We believe that we can achieve this feat via technology transfer and collaboration with our technical partners. Such a desirable development would not only create employment opportunities for our citizenry, but would also re-position our country in international circles as a high–quality manufacturing nation.


Honourable Minister Sir/Madam, in view of our stated aspirations, we would be grateful for your support of our company. For this purpose, we would be honoured if you could kindly recommend our services to local and international players in the sector for contracts/collaboration in our main areas of expertise: X , Y and Z services.  For further information, kindly find attached for your perusal, a detailed business plan for our company.

Whilst awaiting your kind feedback to this letter, Honourable Minister Sir/Madam, we wish to thank you immensely for time and kind consideration.

With revered regards,

Your signature

                                              (Seal) (G8)  

Xcompany Limited/Incorporated
Xcontact details

Other samples of formal letters include memos, emails and a letter sent to company as seen below:

3) An official query from ‘Management’



Dear Mr.  X.  Y,

It has been brought to our attention that at Xtime, on Xdate, you did not remit into the company’s account, the USD Xamount due; being the monies equivalent to the stock for which you were assigned to sell.

As is the standard procedure, every member of the sales team in your location has sold his stock and has paid the corresponding amount into the official account.

Your verbal explanations as to the location of some of the stock entrusted to your care, as well as the delay in payment, are unsatisfactory.

You are hereby given until Xtime on Xdate to explain the following points in writing:

1)  The location of the ‘lost’ stock;

2) The precise amount of unsold stock still in your possession;

3) A realistic time by which you would have concluded all paperwork and made the payment into the company’s account, as well as evidence of the  payment thereafter.

Failure to respond to any of the listed points above, within the given time frame, would result in punitive actions undertaken by Management.


Your signature

Your name
Your title

For Management

4) Email to staff about unofficial absence from base


Dear Mr. X. Y,

Your absence from work, without authorisation, has been noted as unprofessional. Despite previous verbal warnings from your manager to desist from such behaviour, you have flouted orders.

It was noted that on Xdate, you made an unauthorised trip to Xlocation during official hours. Moreover, you did not return to the office on that day to carry out your responsibilities.


You are aware of the operational challenges being experienced, as well as the constant need to maximise satisfaction for our clients. It is thus unfortunate that you are not prioritising the goals of your region. In fact, you are displaying such a disinterest in your duties that it is becoming evident that you may no longer be an asset to this company.

To discuss this issue, you are expected to attend a meeting billed for Xdate at Ytime to give reasons for your continued tenure in this organisation. 

Thereafter, you shall be informed about the final decision taken regarding your job.

Your signature

Your name
Your title

5) Letter of complaint to the Managing Director of a courier company

                                                                               November   X, 2013

Mr.  X. Y
Managing Director
Xcompany Ltd./Inc.


Dear Mr. Y,

In furtherance of recent telephone calls made to your office concerning the incident of a missing package which was handled by employees of your company, we wish to state our dissatisfaction about how this case is being handled.

An official of your company came to our office in Xlocation and picked up the package for dispatch. We retained the dispatch slip for easy reference and can confirm that the package, with the reference: XRef, was collected by your dispatch officer on Xdate, at Ytime.

A few days later,  we made some enquiries. Unfortunately, we received conflicting information from your staff, some of whom were discourteous. We therefore request that you kindly launch an immediate investigation into the case, given that the package dispatched from our office contained confidential material.

Should  the  missing  package  not  be traced  and delivered to  our  office  at Xlocation in pristine condition by 5pm on Xdate, we regret to inform you that in line with our company’s policy, we would discontinue the business relationship with your company. We would subsequently enlist the services of other courier firms.

Kindly treat this request as urgent given that your company has been our preferred business partner for Nyears.

Thank you for your anticipated co-operation in this issue.

Yours sincerely,
Your signature

Your name
Your title
Your contact details



We would all be required to write formal letters both at work and in our daily lives. Let's not give into our fear of making mistakes when we write because the truth be told, we would make some blunders. But we should learn from them and move on.

So take a deep breath and go write that memo/email/letter/speech you've shelved for the past hour. Remember the tips given in this post and soldier on.

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Need further help?

Hire me for a writing assignment, some consulting work and/or coaching sessions in formal writing and communications. There are two  ways to do this:

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0704 631 0592           (Nigeria). 
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(G1)  Official title/designation required.

(G2)  Affix company seal if available.

(G3) The correct spelling of the names and current titles should be listed.

For example, according to media sources, President Jonathan stated that all government functionaries should desist from addressing him as the “Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” at  non-military functions. The directive, released by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation,  Pius Anyim, on  October 14, 2013, with reference SGF/OP/1/S.3/X/664, advises  that the official title should be: "President of The Federal Republic Of Nigeria". Therefore, if writing to him, the proper salutation should be:

"His Excellency,
President of The Federal Republic of Nigeria,
Goodluck Ebele Jonathan." 

and  NOT, as was the norm prior to the date:

"His  Excellency,
President  and  Commander-In-Chief  Of  The  Armed Forces of  Nigeria,
Goodluck Ebele Jonathan."

(G4) The  official  title  should  be  listed. For a President of  a country :

"Your Excellency", "Mr. President" or other variations particular to that country should be used.
(G5) A brief company profile should be given in a maximum of four short sentences. It should list - turnover and profit figures; number of employees;  locations;  and unique selling points of the company.

(G6) List the three most significant details in bullet points.

(G7) Skip this section if it is already included in a business plan.

(G8) Affix company seal if available.


1The formats provided in this post are free for general use and could easily be modified. However, kindly credit them to the author or to the 'Rethinking Business Communications Blog'.

N.B -  First and sixth images courtesy of Renjith Krishnan, via Second image courtesy of Cooldesign, via Third image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS, via Animations courtesy of