Chapter XXIII. The Business Correspondent
§ 112. After the literary world had been studying the art of composition for two thousand years, and had laboriously classified many different styles of writing, a Frenchman named Buff on despairingly remarked, "Style is the man himself." The saying has proved popular. When critics are puzzled as to what to say about style, they repeat Buffon's words. It is as much to confess that literary criticism (like advertising) is not yet an exact science.
Now when an outsider takes it upon himself to offer advice to even a very young correspondent, he may well take refuge in Buffon's dictum. Instead of laying down a set of arbitrary literary laws, he may well ask himself, What sort of men are the successful business correspondents of my acquaintance? If he doesn't personally know a considerable number of such men, he is handicapped. But if, as in the case of the present writer, he has been teaching for twenty years, and is fortunate enough to count among his old students men who are successful correspondents, sales managers, and advertising managers, he must be very dull if he can formulate nothing about those men. For years he has been watching them with pleasure as they got on. There must be reasons for their success, and those reasons must be in the men themselves.
I have found that the letters of these men are characteristic. Each to some extent betrays its authorship. This shows that success is not always of the same pattern. There are correspondents of different types. On the other hand, there are respects in which the letters are alike. There is then a general type. There is the business correspondent as such. Let us see if some of these common characteristics which make him can be named.
First, all the letters of all these successful men are marked by a certain richness of specific terms. You will recall what was said about specific words in section eighty-six - the last few paragraphs. Note now the following grading of general and specific terms:
2. artificial object.
5. gas engine.
6. motor-boat gas engine.
7. 3 h.p. motor-boat gas engine.
8. 3 h.p. two-cycle motor-boat gas engine.
9. 3 h.p. two-cycle motor-boat Pierce gas engine.
Of these terms, number one is pretty general. Its extension is vast. Number two decreases the extension and increases the intension. When you get to number nine you have something pretty definite. Indeed, for some persons and some situations it is too definite. In a romantic novel you would hardly introduce a love scene by saying, "They gazed into the sunset with dreamy eyes, as their little launch, driven by a 3 h.p. two-cycle motor-boat Pierce gas-engine, sped along over the rippling lake."
But the business letters of successful men seem to be full of number nines. They are buying and selling number nines, not number ones or twos. And this leads me to the naive remark that before a man can buy or sell number nines he must know them from number eights or sevens or sixes. One would say that selling-knowledge must precede good selling-talk. One would fancy that mastery of a business must precede the use of vigorous English about it.
These remarks seem so absurdly like truisms that an outsider blushes to make them. Yet I have received sales-letters that were too general, and have seen advertisements that were too vague. The thing that is to be sold is a very particular thing, and supposedly it has some particular excellence that makes all the difference. Happy is the sales-article that has two superiorities. I ask you if every man who undertakes to advertise an article really knows that article as he should? And does he know the specific word which will set it before the given public in its true light? No advertising-agency has a right to a share of an advertiser's money just because the advertiser has business to give. No correspondent has a right to his salary just for palming off generalities on the public, and spoiling good paper with vague dissertations. Your good correspondent deals not in metal but in brass; not in brass, but in brass-products; not in brass-products but in brass nails; not in brass nails but in - brass tacks.
In the next place, I gather from a perusal of the successful letters before alluded to, and from some personal knowledge of the writers, that the good correspondent is a man of the world.
I trust that the phrase will not offend. To some people it may suggest a worldling, a man given up to the pursuit of things that perish, a man who is indifferent to all that is spiritual. I certainly do not intend the phrase in that sense. Permit me at . all events to use it in a finer sense. The man of the world may hold strong religious views; he may be deeply attached to some creed. But in his business correspondence it is inconceivable that he should intrude his personal views, or take a colder tone in addressing a person of different persuasion. A good Hindoo correspondent may cherish a secret scorn for the Christian, but his letters will not show it. He is enough of an actor to keep his race-prejudice to himself. He recognizes that business is business. And for one I feel strongly that in this matter the interests and conventions of business are of untold value to society. Business is sufficiently warlike, sufficiently cruel. But it has had a very large share in bringing peace on earth, good will toward men. The man of the world, then, regards all religions with a certain tolerance, a tolerance which need not be utter indifference. If he must play a part in order to do this, and must force himself into tolerance, he may do so with a good conscience. He ought to be tolerant; business conventions help him to attain tolerance.
The man of the world, once said Cardinal Newman, is too well occupied to take offense, and too indolent to bear malice. Indolent? Is that a wise word to introduce to a young correspondent? In this connection, Yes. Have we no right to indolence in anything! It is a great exertion to bear malice. It involves giving steady attention to an enemy. And who is going to pay you for that attention! If I am to bear malice I desire to be paid heavily, for attention is my most precious asset, and I have not the slightest intention of squandering it. Suppose my correspondent makes me very angry; such things have been. My physician tells me that anger is the most expensive luxury I can aspire to; it divides attention, depletes nervous energy, and if long persisted in will quite unman me and send me to an expensive sanitarium. Clearly, before I nurse my wrath I must stop and ask - Has this fellow a right to so much of my fury! Has he paid me for this drain that is about to be made upon my nervous system? Clearly not. He must be a very important customer with whom I can physically afford to get angry.