How to Write a Better Business Letter

business letter format
Jane Curry and Diana Young -- two Ph.D.s from Chicago who, for the last 20 years, have taught businesspeople how to write -- understand that most folks don't love to write. That's why they've penned their book 'Be a Brilliant Business Writer: Write Well, Write Fast and Whip the Competition.'
"In fact, many of you are so pressed for time you often have to slam away at your keyboards into the night, working against impossible and competing deadlines. No wonder most of you appear to need a good cry, a dry martini and a long nap," they say in the introduction to their book that went on sale on Oct. 5.
In a recent interview with AOL Jobs, Young provided advice for job seekers and anyone else who wants to dazzle employers with their brilliant business writing.

Four tips for writing a better business letter or e-mail.

1. Lead with the most important point.
"If it's an e-mail, say something like, 'Would you have time to meet with me before next Tuesday for the X project?' so the reader knows right away why you're writing," Young advised. "The reader should understand right away when they get that e-mail why they're reading it and what response they have to make."
"As for job seekers," she said, "remember not to concentrate on yourself too much."
"Often, what you see in resumes and cover letters is what the job seeker wants," according to Young. "They'll say, for example, 'professional accountant looking for a fulfilling position' rather than 'professional accountant with 15 years of experience to help X company' and then explain how their experience might help the company."

2. Use visual formatting.
"The people you're writing for aren't in school anymore," Young noted. "People are not being paid to crawl through enormous paragraphs. You need to make a map on the page so people can scan at a glance. What they should see in that scan is what's most important. If you haven't given the reader the key points of your message in 4.5 seconds, you've pretty much lost them."

3. Let your speech guide you when you write.
"So many people want to sound professional, but they end up sounding institutional and hostile," Young said with a chuckle. "Jane and I say you can sound professional and still sound like a human being -- and you should. That's one of the biggest tools in your toolkit."
"I'm not saying to write exactly the way you talk," she added. "What I'm saying is that if you wouldn't say it out loud, don't write it down. For example, I would never say to you, 'Cost efficiencies have been realized.' I would say, 'We have cut costs.' Which one does business better? It's the second way."

4. Take the time to edit yourself.
"You always have to proofread for errors," Young said. "You always have to spell-check. Always. If something is really important to you, like getting a job, read it backwards or fold your paper in half. You know what you wrote, so your brain just supplies the missing word. Break things up so your brain won't automatically fill in the missing word. A simple mistake can undermine your credibility."

Performance reviews: A natural opportunity for a résumé update


In today's often-frenetic business world, it's hard to remember everything that needs to be done and even more difficult to make time for it all. Take the task of updating your résumé. If you recently received a performance evaluation, consider setting aside some time to do just that.

The timing is ideal, coming just after you've reflected on your most recent projects and accomplishments. During your evaluation, your manager likely also gave you some insights about your strengths. And what about recently acquired skills, such as proficiency with a particular software package or experience implementing a new accounting rule? Why not feed this fresh information into your résumé while it's still top of mind?

It's always a good practice to have an up-to-date résumé on hand. You never know when you'll hear about an opportunity that interests you or be approached by a recruiter about a position when you least expect it. As the scouting motto goes: Be prepared.

Here are some questions to consider as you undertake a résumé update:

Are my accomplishments showcased? Make sure your revamped résumé focuses on what you've actually achieved in your current role. Professionals often give an exhaustive list of their responsibilities but fail to say how they made an on-the-job difference. For example, rather than listing one of your responsibilities as "managed receivables," explain your success in doing so -- e.g., "Managed more than $350 million in receivables over six years with less than $100,000 of bad debt."
Also, take renewed stock of your intangible assets, particularly those highlighted by your manager during your appraisal. You may be able to plug some of these attributes into your résumé as well.

Is the style up to date? Like your wardrobe, your résumé also needs periodic makeovers. Do some research and check with colleagues to get up to speed on current résumé trends and employer preferences. Granted, the latter can be difficult to nail down; résumé advice can vary from one hiring manager or human resources professional to the next. But you should be able to identify the most widely favored practices.
Many employers, for instance, prefer a professional profile or summary at the top of the résumé, rather than an objective. Another example is provided by executives polled in a Robert Half survey, who said they prefer a chronological résumé, which is organized by your work history, to a functional one, which is organized according to your skills and attributes.

Is the length right? Just as thinking on résumé style has evolved over time, so have résumé length preferences. Senior executives interviewed in periodic surveys by Robert Half have generally been more receptive toward two-page résumés for staff positions, but most still prefer a one-page résumé.
Although there is no hard-and-fast rule for how long your résumé should be, keep in mind that everything about your résumé, including its length, is a reflection of your judgment, so you want it to suit you. If you have only about three years of job experience, you probably don't need a two-page résumé -- and having one won't make you seem more qualified. Hiring managers can spot filler.
Further, an initial résumé scan may command a minute or less of a reviewer's time, so a bloated résumé can work against you. A hiring manager is more likely to glean the most important information quickly if your résumé is short and concise.

Have I avoided empty words? Too often, candidates fill their résumés with buzzwords they think sound impressive but don't convey anything of substance. In fact, they've become clichés (such as "innovative," "dynamic" or "effective"). Moreover, they make you sound like everyone else at a time when you want a hiring manager to see you as a special candidate. So rather than saying you're "creative" or "results-oriented," try to explain how your creativity is reflected in your work and what kind of results you've achieved.
We all know the importance of triggers, which is why we develop routines and make to-do lists. Consider starting a positive professional habit by updating your résumé after every performance appraisal. It can help ensure that you capture career highlights as they occur -- and that you're always prepared for whatever lies ahead.

Writing your résumé in Klingon will not get you the job

resume mistakes 2013In the movie “Legally Blonde,” the main character Elle Woods does some pretty memorable things to secure an internship at a law firm. One such stand-out tactic she uses is to write her résumé on pink scented paper. While her maneuvers worked to land her the job in the movie, in the real world, unusual résumés can quickly go from being memorable to a misstep.
CareerBuilder recently surveyed hiring managers, asking them to share the most memorable and unusual applications they’ve received. They gave the following real-life examples:
  • Résumé was written in Klingon language from Star Trek
  • Résumé was submitted from a person the company just fired
  • Résumé’s “Skills” section was spelled “Skelze”
  • Résumé listed the candidate’s objective as “To work for someone who is not an alcoholic with three DUI’s like my current employer”
  • Résumé included language typically seen in text messages (e.g., no capitalization and use of shortcuts like “u”)
  • Résumé consisted of one sentence: “Hire me, I’m awesome”
  • Résumé listed the candidate’s online video gaming experience leading warrior “clans,” suggesting this passed for leadership experience
  • Résumé included pictures of the candidate from baby photos to adulthood
  • Résumé was a music video
  • Résumé didn’t include the candidate’s name
  • On the job application, where it asks for your job title with a previous employer, the applicant wrote “Mr.”
  • Résumé included time spent in jail for assaulting a former boss
The length debate
Sometimes it’s not what you write on your résumé, but it’s how much you write that can turn an employer off. If you’re a new college graduate, 66 percent of employers think your résumé should be one page long. For seasoned workers, the majority of employers (77 percent) say your résumé should be at least two pages.
Interestingly, employers and job seekers may have different ideas of appropriate résumé length and content. Thirty-nine percent of workers ages 45 and older reported that their résumé is only one page long.
The survey also showed that, although more than half of employers say they only want to see work experience that is relevant to the job at hand (53 percent) and primarily within the last 10 years (57 percent), 41 percent of workers ages 45 and older include their first job on their résumé.
Costly résumé mistakes
When asked to identify the most common résumé mistakes that may lead them to automatically dismiss a candidate, employers pointed to the following:
  • Résumés that have typos – 58 percent
  • Résumés that are generic and don’t seem personalized for the position – 36 percent
  • Résumés that don’t include a list of skills – 35 percent
  • Résumés that copied a large amount of wording from the job posting – 32 percent
  • Résumés that have an inappropriate email address – 31 percent
  • Résumés that don’t include exact dates of employment – 27 percent
  • Résumés printed on decorative paper – 22 percent
  • Résumés that include a photo – 13 percent
“Your résumé is the primary deciding factor for whether you will land a job interview,” says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “It’s important to project a professional image. Keep it succinct, personalize it to feature only skills and experience relevant to the position you’re applying for, and always include specific, quantifiable results that showcase the value you can bring to an organization.”
Paper becoming passé
While Elle Woods may have found success with her pink résumé paper, some employers won’t accept your paper résumé, no matter what color it is. More than one quarter (26 percent) of employers only accept digital résumés, leaving hard copies sent via the mail unopened.

Hiring Managers Reveal 12 Worst Resume Mistakes

Learn from these real-life blunders.

 
By Debra Auerbach

In the movie "Legally Blonde," the main character Elle Woods does some pretty memorable things to secure an internship at a law firm. One such stand-out tactic she uses is writing her résumé on pink scented paper. While her maneuvers worked to land her the job in the movie, in the real world, unusual résumés can quickly go from being memorable to a misstep.

CareerBuilder recently surveyed hiring managers, asking them to share the most memorable and unusual applications they've received. They gave the following real-life examples:
  1. Résumé was written in Klingon language from Star Trek
  2. Résumé was submitted from a person the company just fired
  3. Résumé's "Skills" section was spelled "Skelze"
  4. Résumé listed the candidate's objective as "To work for someone who is not an alcoholic with three DUI's like my current employer"
  5. Résumé included language typically seen in text messages (e.g., no capitalization and use of shortcuts like "u")
  6. Résumé consisted of one sentence: "Hire me, I'm awesome"
  7. Résumé listed the candidate's online video gaming experience leading warrior "clans," suggesting this passed for leadership experience
  8. Résumé included pictures of the candidate from baby photos to adulthood
  9. Résumé was a music video
  10. Résumé didn't include the candidate's name
  11. On the job application, where it asks for your job title with a previous employer, the applicant wrote "Mr."
  12. Résumé included time spent in jail for assaulting a former boss
The length debate
Sometimes it's not what you write on your résumé, but it's how much you write that can turn an employer off. If you're a new college graduate, 66 percent of employers think your résumé should be one page long. For seasoned workers, the majority of employers (77 percent) say your résumé should be at least two pages.

Interestingly, employers and job seekers may have different ideas of appropriate résumé length and content. Thirty-nine percent of workers ages 45 and older reported that their résumé is only one page long.
The survey also showed that, although more than half of employers say they only want to see work experience that is relevant to the job at hand (53 percent) and primarily within the last 10 years (57 percent), 41 percent of workers ages 45 and older include their first job on their résumé.

Costly resume mistakes
When asked to identify the most common résumé mistakes that may lead them to automatically dismiss a candidate, employers pointed to the following:
  • Résumés that have typos - 58 percent
  • Résumés that are generic and don't seem personalized for the position - 36 percent
  • Résumés that don't include a list of skills - 35 percent
  • Résumés that copied a large amount of wording from the job posting - 32 percent
  • Résumés that have an inappropriate email address - 31 percent
  • Résumés that don't include exact dates of employment - 27 percent
  • Résumés printed on decorative paper - 22 percent
  • Résumés that include a photo - 13 percent
"Your résumé is the primary deciding factor for whether you will land a job interview," says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. "It's important to project a professional image. Keep it succinct, personalize it to feature only skills and experience relevant to the position you're applying for, and always include specific, quantifiable results that showcase the value you can bring to an organization."

Paper becoming passé
While Elle Woods may have found success with her pink résumé paper, some employers won't accept your paper résumé, no matter what color it is. More than one quarter (26 percent) of employers only accept digital résumés, leaving hard copies sent via the mail unopened.

How to Write a Resume Career Summary

Generate Interest with a High-Impact Summary Statement

Hiring managers are busy people. A single job posting might attract thousands of resumes. To get noticed, create a career summary (AKA career objective) statement. The goal of this section is to develop a hard-hitting introductory declaration packed with your most sought-after skills, abilities, accomplishments and attributes. In the Monster Resume Builder, use the Objective section to present your summary. 

Take these six steps to create a winning career summary:
1. Conduct Research on Your Ideal Job
The more closely you can target your profile to the employer's needs, the better your results will be. Start by searching jobs for your ideal position. Compare the ads and write a list of common job requirements and preferred qualifications.
2. Assess Your Credentials
Based on your research, how do you measure up? How would you help potential employers meet their goals? Besides the qualifications described, do you offer any added bonus? If you are lacking in one area, do you make up for it with other credentials?
If you are having a hard time assessing your skills, get help. Ask your colleagues, instructors and supervisors what they see as your key qualifications. Review your performance evaluations. What do others say about the quality of your work? Then write a list of your top five marketable credentials.
3. Relay the Value You Bring to the Table
The next step is to weave your top credentials into your summary. Keep in mind that the summary helps the hiring manager determine if you should be called for an interview. Include a synopsis of your career achievements to show that your dedication to results is transferable to your next employer. Explain how you would help solve their problems. Ask yourself, "How will the employer benefit from hiring me?"
4. Add a Headline
A headline, or resume title, hooks your readers and compels them to continue reading. A headline should include your job target as well as the main benefit of hiring you.
5. Focus on Your Goal
The most effective summaries target one career goal. If you have more than one possible objective, consider drafting different versions. Your profile can also include a bulleted "Key Skills" section, which provides an easy-to-read listing of your core capabilities.
6. Proofread, Refine and Perfect
First impressions are lasting impressions. Is your summary persuasive and free of errors? Is your tone appropriate for your career field? Avoid empty, generalized statements such as "excellent communication skills."
The Finished Product
Here is an example of an effective career summary:
Corporate Real Estate Executive

Increasing Bottom-Line Profitability Through Real Estate Strategies
Professional Profile
Accomplished executive with a proven ability to develop and implement real estate strategies that support business and financial objectives. Have led key initiatives that reduced operating budget by $32 million and contributed to 550 percent stock increase. Recognized as an expert in applying financial concepts to asset management decisions.
Respected leader, able to build highly motivated management teams focused on achieving revenue goals. Keep up-to-date with changes in the industry through continuing professional development (earned an MBA in finance/real estate and master of corporate real estate designation).
Areas of Expertise
  • High-Volume, High-Dollar Negotiations  
  • Strategic/Tactical Planning  
  • Multimillion-Dollar Operating and Capital Budget Administration  
  • Analytical and Financial Skills  
  • Statistical Modeling and ROI Analyses

Ask an Expert: How to Write a Reference List

Job seekers frequently ask me where they should list references on their resume. The answer is that you shouldn't list references anywhere on your resume. References belong on a separate sheet of paper that you can offer to the employer when they ask.
While many employers will ask for your references on the job application, few will call them unless you are a final candidate for the job or are offered a position. At that point in time, you may need to offer them your reference list. Here is what that list should include.
  1. Reference name and job title
  2. Company where you worked together
  3. Company address (if reference is still employed there)
  4. Phone and/or cell number
  5. E-mail address
  6. Relationship to applicant
It is acceptable to use a reference of someone who is no longer employed by the company where you worked together. The most important factor in a strong reference is that they can vouch for your character and job performance.
Once you know that your references may be contacted, it's important to contact each reference as soon as possible and let them know that they will receive a call from a human resources representative or from a hiring manager. Inform your references of the following:
  • The name of the company considering you for hire
  • The title of the position for which you are under consideration
  • The primary requirements of the position
  • Your skills and accomplishments that make you a fit for the position
  • Key statements you would like your references to offer in the reference interview
Be sure to send a thank you letter to your reference contacts after they have provided the reference to a potential hiring manager.

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