Use a logical structure

What does the reader need to know, and in what order?

Tell the reader what they need to know, in the order they need to know it. Be careful not to let your own priorities interfere and set the agenda – these aren’t necessarily the same as the customer’s priorities.

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes

Here’s a helpful way to plan letters and emails. Before you begin, consider:

  1. Why are we writing? Is the customer expecting the letter?
  2. What action does the customer need to take?
  3. What further support or information is available?

Ordering the document

  1. Clearly and succinctly tell the customer why we’re writing.
  2. Tell the customer what they need to do. If they don’t need to do anything, tell them so.
  3. Explain where to get support or more information if needed (eg phone number, policy documents previously provided).

Introduce each of these three sections with a short, informative heading.

Longer documents

Not all documents will follow the above pattern; some will be longer and need more headings and more information, others may have more than one key message.

But whatever you’re writing, always begin by looking at it from the customer’s perspective. Clarify what they need to know and in what order, then build the document around that structure.

Effective headings

Use headings and sub-headings to:

  • Show at a glance what the document contains
  • Guide the reader through a logical journey using clear signposts
  • Provide easy reference points.

Be active and informative

The best headings are active and informative, and sum up the paragraph that follows. So for example ‘We’ll be in touch if we need more information’ is a more helpful heading than just ‘Further information’.

In a letter or email, the first heading should immediately make it clear why we’re writing. Remember to write like you talk – be simple, honest, direct and human.

Examples:

✘ Advice of unpaid insurance premium direct instalment
✔ There’s been a problem with your direct debit

✘ Cancellation of policy
✔ Your policy will be cancelled in 10 days if you take no action

Style and format for headings

In letters and emails, align headings to the left (not the centre). Bold them up, but don’t underline them. The first heading should come after the greeting, not above it.

✘ Don’t Use Title Case, Where You Capitalise all the Principle Words (as in US publications).
✔ Use sentence case, where you just capitalise the first letter.

✘ Don’t include a full stop at the end of the heading.
✔ Do include a question mark if it’s a question.

Sentence structure

The power of putting the what before the why

To make sentences clear and simple, put the primary clause first – or in other words, put the what before the why (or when or how).

This means the reader can begin to understand the sentence as soon as they start reading, rather than having to get to the end before they can make sense of the beginning.

Examples:

✘ In order to achieve these targets within the specified timeframe, we need to begin the training now.
✔ We need to begin the training now, so we can hit our targets on time.

✘ Your direct debit instalment of £20.88, which was due on 2nd December, has not been received.
✔ We haven’t received your direct debit of £20.88, which was due on 2nd December.

Simple words

Use straightforward words everyone understands

We’re trying to impress our readers with our service, not our vocabulary – and that means telling them what they need to know simply, clearly and helpfully.

Use short, simple words. If you write to customers in the same words you’d use when talking to a friend, they’ll understand you straight away.

Words to avoid (and simpler alternatives):

  • Additional (extra)
  • Accordingly (so)
  • Acquire (get)
  • Advise (tell)
  • Allows (lets)
  • Commence (start)
  • Consequently (so)
  • Enquire (ask)
  • Ensure (make sure)
  • However (but)
  • Inform (tell)
  • Occasions (times)
  • Per annum (a year)
  • Prior to (before)
  • Regarding (about)
  • Remain (stay)
  • Request (ask)
  • Select (choose)
  • Terminate (cancel).

Use plenty of verbs

‘Doing’ words add energy.

Use simple, active verbs to make your writing sound active and alive. People do things – by using verbs, we show ourselves to be dynamic, human and different.

Don’t noun your verbs

Avoid unnecessarily turning verbs into nouns by adding tion – this can weigh down your writing, making it hard to read and unfriendly.

✘ This is confirmation of cancellation.
✔ We’ve cancelled your membership.

✘ This will lead to temporary disqualification from entering.
✔ You’ll be temporarily disqualified from entering.

✘ Calculation of the outstanding amount is as follows.
✔ We calculate the outstanding amount as follows.

Cut it out

Removing unnecessary words

One of the easiest ways to give your writing an instant boost is to remove the unnecessary words.

Some of the most common are:

  • “I can confirm that …”
  • “We’re writing to tell you that …”
  • “A situation has arisen where …”
  • “Our records show that …”

Look for words and phrases that you’ve unthinkingly added as filler, but which don’t actually add any substance. We all do it. Sometimes it’s a set phrase, sometimes cushioning to soften a blow, sometimes a subconscious attempt to wriggle out of accepting responsibility.

✘ Our records show that there is an outstanding balance on your account of £20.88, which we are yet to receive.
✔ There’s an outstanding balance of £20.88 on your account.

✘ We’ve identified an error in the home insurance policy you have with us, relating to the family legal and home protection you purchased.
✔ Sorry, we made a mistake when you bought your home insurance policy.

‘That’ can often be removed

  • So that we can continue to improve our service, we’ve recently carried out a quality review.
  • This meant that the no claims discount on your policy was incorrect.
  • We’ve noticed that some of your details have changed.

Get active

Use the active voice for clear, direct sentences

In the active voice, someone does something – “Henry sells ice cream”. It’s direct, dynamic and accountable.

In the passive, something is done by someone, and we don’t always know who – “Ice cream is sold”, or “Ice cream is sold by Henry”.

Generally, it’s better to talk about people or organisations taking action than to describe things as mysteriously happening. Sometimes that’s not possible because you don’t have all the facts – but when you do, you should usually use the active. It energises your writing and makes you sound human.

Examples

Passive: If payment isn’t received by 8th January your policy will be cancelled.
Active: If you haven’t paid by 8th January we’ll cancel your policy.

Passive: No further action is required.
Active: You don’t need to do anything else.

Passive: We’ve been informed by your bank that your direct debit instruction has been cancelled.
Active: Your bank’s told us that your direct debit’s been cancelled.

Note that “your direct debit’s been cancelled” remains in the passive. This is because we don’t know who cancelled it. Other valid reasons for using the passive include not wanted to reveal who did something, or not wanting to embarrass someone by pointing out that they did something. It’s OK to use the passive; just consider why you’re doing so.

Apologise well

Saying sorry simply and genuinely

Everyone makes mistakes. When it’s your turn, it’s important to own up, apologise and put things right.

First, make sure you’re actually apologising for what went wrong and the damage caused. Take care to avoid the non-apology apology, beloved of politicians.

✘ If this inconvenienced anyone, we are sorry
(“Perhaps no one was inconvenienced, so we didn’t really do anything wrong”)
✘ We apologise if any offence was caused
(“We’re sorry for the offence, but not the actual mistake”)
✘ We are sorry that you feel our service was unsatisfactory
(“Our service was fine; you’re being unreasonable”)
✘ We would like to apologise
(“Well why don’t you go ahead and do it, then?”)

✔ We apologise for charging you twice.
✔ We’re sorry we didn’t call you when we said we would.
✔ Please accept our apologies.

In short, be active, be direct and don’t attach conditions to your apology.

Apologise first

Don’t leave the apology until the last line of a letter – start off by saying you’re sorry, explain what happened, then move on swiftly to explain how you’re going to put things right.

Important information about your renewal
Thank you for renewing your car insurance with Happy Wheels on 1st May. We’re writing to let you know that due to a system error the amount we collected for your renewal premium was incorrect. The additional amount will be refunded to the card held on your account on 15th May.

We’re refunding £16.56 to your card
We’re sorry, we got so excited when you renewed your Happy Wheels insurance on 1st May that we mistakenly overcharged by £16.56. This was because we hadn’t factored in your increased no-claims discount. We’ll refund the difference to your card on 15th May. Please accept our apologies.

Active and passive apologies

Companies often use the passive voice to avoid admitting they’ve done something wrong.  But the mistake involved someone doing something to someone (or failing to), so the apology should too. Who made the mistake? How are you rectifying it?

✘ A mistake was made when your policy was arranged.
✘ A miscalculation occurred in your no claims discount.
✘ This has now been corrected and has resulted in a refund of £20.88.

✔ We made a mistake when we set up your policy.
✔ We miscalculated your no claims discount.
✔ We’re sending you a refund of £20.88.

Inform, don’t chastise

 Giving the benefit of the doubt

When something goes wrong at the customer’s end, our first reaction should be to give them the chance to put things right.

Failed direct debit – but why?

If a direct debit fails, there could be many explanations. If the customer has been a victim of fraud and had their card suspended, then they’ve already had a bad week and the last thing they need is for you to add to it.

Direct debit instruction cancelled at your bank
We’ve been advised by your bank that the direct debit instruction for the above insurance policy has been cancelled resulting in an outstanding balance of £20.88.

There’s been a problem with your direct debit
Your bank has told us that your direct debit has been cancelled. This means we couldn’t collect this month’s payment, so you have an outstanding balance of £20.88.

It’s all about me you 

Use at least as much ‘you’ as ‘we’

The customer wants to know they’re important to you. They want you to talk about them and their needs, not go on and one about yourself.

If you find you’re writing “we, we, we”, it may be a sign that you’re not prioritising the customer. Take a moment to step back and refocus on what they need from this exchange.

Talk about the company as ‘we’ (not ‘Happy Wheels’) and the customer as ‘you’ (not ‘the account holder’).

Example:

We’ve enclosed within this pack:

  • Policy booklet (including information on the services we provide)
  • Statement of insurance (shows the details we have based your cover on)
  • Our optional additional products booklet (with details of any optional additional products you have bought and others that are available)

(we: 4, you: 2)

✔ Inside this pack you’ll find all the documents you need, including:

  • Statement of insurance (reflects the information you’ve given us)
  • Policy document (your terms and conditions and policy wording)
  • Additional products booklet (a guide to the extra products we offer, including any you’ve opted for)

(we: 2, you: 5)

Think about who to put first

The order of a sentence can subtly influence its tone. Compare these two examples:

  • You may want a hot drink, which is why we provide vending machines.
  • We provide vending machines, in case you want a hot drink.

In the first, we seem responsive to the customer’s needs. In the second, we seem proactive but less empathetic. Both have their merits, but when you want the customer to feel their needs are being understood and acted on, it can help to literally put them first in the sentence.