April 1st 2015, posted by

The ultimate standard letter

Our analysis of British bosses’ open letter in the Telegraph

We see a lot of standard business letters at The First Word. They’re one of the things customers hate most because they’re so generic, and it’s obvious they weren’t written by the person who’s name is at the bottom.

Today 100 leaders of British businesses set a bad example by producing their own version of the standard letter.

Here it is in full, followed by our analysis.

Dear Sirs,

We run some of the leading businesses in the UK. We believe this Conservative-led Government has been good for business and has pursued policies which have supported investment and job creation.

David Cameron and George Osborne’s flagship policy of progressively lowering Corporation Tax to 20% has been very important in showing the UK is open for business. It has been a key part of their economic plan.

The result is that Britain grew faster than any other major economy last year and businesses like ours have created over 1.85m new jobs.

We believe a change in course will threaten jobs and deter investment. This would send a negative message about Britain and put the recovery at risk.

At a glance
The letter is short. You could argue that such brevity gives a sense of decisiveness and efficiency to the writing. But really it’s a few sound bites and stats shoehorned into letter format and given a fake business voice.

We know who the letter’s from. But who’s it to?
I can’t remember the last time I read Dear Sirs (and I read a lot of business letters). It would almost sound quaint if it weren’t so sexist. It’s designed to give the letter an air of formal credibility, but Dear Sirs is an anachronism in modern business writing.

It also begs the question: Who is this open letter addressed to, exactly? We’d have thought it was the British public, given that it was published in a major British newspaper. But perhaps we’re supposed to think we’re somehow privy to a letter from one group of business leaders to another, throwing their weight around in the boardrooms of power?

If it is aimed at us, then maybe Dear Sirs is simply a wife’s cue to pass the newspaper to her business-minded husband. Or are we being transported back in time to the cigar-smoking old boys’ club of British commerce, where men ran the Empire and women made the tea?

And that’s before we get to the first paragraph.

We not I
Great leaders use the active personal pronoun I. It’s one reason we trust them when they write and speak.

Here, the first two sentences start with we to give the impression that the leaders have been willingly subdued in the name of political allegiance.

The effect is a bland voice at odds with the leaders who’ve signed the letter (I can’t imagine Duncan Bannatyne writing anything so dull). It does nothing to convince us that this is the rally cry of Britain’s top business leaders, because there’s nothing of their personality in the writing.

From impersonal pronouns to protagonists
By naming David Cameron and George Osborne in the opening of the second paragraph, the letter makes them the heroes of the piece, casting them as dynamic leaders and the personification of British economic success.

This conforms to a typical business hierarchy. Cameron and Osborne have been appointed as the leaders’ leaders. It’s a structure emphasised by the phrase Conservative-led in the opening paragraph.

Business as usual language
Business language is peppered throughout the letter. The words flagship, open for business, result, grew, progressively, economy, plan, result are all there to make us feel we’re reading a CEO’s mission statement, not a political manifesto. It ends with a dull metaphor and a common cliché in business writing: a change in course.

The verbs turn from action-oriented (led, grew, supported) to ominous (threaten, deter). What started as a message about past success ends on a note of pessimism about the future – a classic scare-tactic. And the phrase ‘recovery at risk’ is so neat in its alliteration, so pointedly political, that it’s clearly written by someone in government, not business.

So, leaders, it looks like someone else has been doing your work. See us after class.



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