The Business Correspondent. Part 3
Observe that the pursuit of excellence in this matter is not a nervous and bustling pursuit. There is a time for every man to hustle, but the correspondent must hustle as quickly and calmly as the dawn hustles. The midnight-oil style, the cocktail-style, the cocain-style are not for him. The man of the world does not seem to hustle, but he arrives. He swings gently into place before the gong strikes or the whistle blows or the starter's pistol cracks.
§ 113. It is impossible to produce a business correspondent in the high school or in college or even in a business college. The boy can there be taught the forms, but he can't there be taught the business. College, and especially the companionships of college, will help to develop the qualities of a man of the world. They will get him started toward a real knowledge of human nature; will teach him good manners and self-control. But only the actual situation of buying and selling can give the sure touch which distinguishes a good letter from an indifferent one. The letters which a man writes as exercises are always more or less unreal, more or less stiff.
The other evening a particularly successful college-bred correspondent dropped in to dinner with us, in response to a request to come out and tell his old instructor something about business letters. He ran his eye over the table of contents of this book and asked, "Why do you put letter-writing at the very end? That subject usually comes first."
"Well, it ought to come first, because it is by far the commonest form of business English. But it is also the hardest form, so it ought to come last. As a matter of fact, it comes first and twenty-first and all the time in this book. Half the illustrative material is taken from actual letters. Everything learned in these twenty-two chapters may be used in writing letters."
"You can't learn these things out of a book anyhow," said Frank, with a sudden fit of gloom.
"I suppose not," said I. "Yesterday morning a young man borrowed the best book I know on writing business letters, and he spent most of the day reading it. Then he came round and said it was too hard. He wanted something easier.'9
"That's it, there you are. They all want something easy. And letter-writing isn't easy."
"For forty reasons. (You've got to know the business. You've got to be able to explain a thing better than the man who got it up. And worst of all, you've got to be natural"
"Is that so hard - being natural!"
"Hardest thing in the world, because it takes time. There's a raft of stock phrases that save time, and when you're in a hurry you use them. And you're always in a hurry, and the stock phrases are economical,"
"But in the end they don't pay!"
"You bet they don't. Every letter ought to be a work of skill. The problem is to get so expert that you can dictate good letters rapidly. The head of my firm can do it. He can do it by the hour. Every one of them is different. Every one fits like a glove the man it's written to. Yet there is something warm and personal in them all, something that just belongs to T-----and to no other man."
"I suppose he ends 'em with 'The last time I saw you, you thought - and so forth.' "
"Oh, yes, sometimes. And if he does, you may wager that he will remember right; he'll remember better than the man he addresses. But that's only a trick. Why, they're trying to put that sort of thing even into form-letters now. What I mean is something much subtler. When you get one of T-----'s letters, you have the man himself - same as Buffon said. You sec I do remember some of my college dope."
"DopeI" I gasped internally. When he was in college I used to call Frank "the Puritan." Quantum mutatus - what a change was here. But I went on calmly.
"So you get T-----himself, eh? You see him sitting there and hear his convincing accents. He is there - all courteous and easy and conversational. And this kind of thing can't be taught Is that it!" !
"Quite so. You can't give directions for being natural and charming and personal and convincing."
"No, I suppose not. And so our departments of English are a failure. I've often suspected it."
This crafty fishing for a compliment got in its work.
"I wouldn't say that," Frank piped up quickly enough. "But in college I always went in for purity of diction and all that. I was always trying to be correct."
"And you've had to unlearn it?"
"Some of it. You can't always be thinking about paragraphs and sentences and pure diction. If you do, your letter will sound cold and dead. Dead! that's the word. Half the etters written by college graduates are dead ones. You've got o make your letters live. You've got to talk a language that the other man will understand. You've got to make him feel that you're doing business with him, not dictating a form-letter or a copy-book model."
"Sounds incontestable," I murmured.
Frank went on with increasing earnestness. " When a fellow gets and reads your letter, he must be able to say, 'There's a man behind that. He jumps right out at you.' "
"Same as a dog!"
"Yes, like a dog that grips you by the throat."
"Cheerful proposition. How your correspondent must love it!"
"Well, then, a letter should be like a well-aimed rifle shot or a well-aimed prize-fighter's blow."
"I can't help it. Business is like hunting. You're after game."
"But if the game smells the hunter and gets scared - ."
"There you go. You won't let me have any figure of speech. I tell you there's got to be originality and personal quality in a letter, or it's a dead one."
"But look here, Frank. Suppose the man who gets the letter is so impressed by the originality and personality of the writer that he forgets about the goods. A sales-letter, for example, is meant to sell goods. It isn't meant to show how clever the writer is."
"Of course not. A good sales-letter makes the receiver think about himself and his own business. The word You stares at him from every paragraph. He sees his needs. He didn't realize them before."
"Well, then, this personal quality that you tell about seems to be partly the art of ignoring one's own personality and substituting the customer's interests."
"It's just that. That's what I've been saying all along."
"One more question, Frank. Do you wish you hadn't gone to college? Should you have been a better correspondent if you had had no college English? I know you will answer truthfully."
"I don't say that. My college English all comes in handy, especially what we had about organization. All I mean is that the technique mustn't get in the way. You have to forget it, just as a piano-player has to forget his finger exercises. You can't write good letters by rule. All the principles, hundreds of them, must have soaked in. You must digest the rules and assimilate your knowledge."
There was silence for a minute, while we both watched the elm-branches swaying in the evening light. Then Frank said: "It may seem odd, but the part of my English training which is most useful to me as a correspondent was my work in public speaking and in tutoring boys who were going to debate."
"Yes. I think it is because that made me analyze things. When you are debating, you have to take what the other fellow says and analyze it on the spot. You have to throw out the unimportant, and show that it is unimportant. You have to pin things down to a dilemma, and show what will happen if your arguments are not accepted. It's the same way in a letter. You have to talk on paper, and get things down to so simple a situation that your man simply has to say 'Yes! of course! That's the thing for me to do.' "
Such was the substance of the lesson which Frank gave to his old teacher, and it represents a good deal of successful experience. We may add it to our previous doctrines and sum up.
The good correspondent must be four things: master of the business he represents; man of the world; enthusiastic; personal and individual without attracting attention to his own cleverness.
Couched in these brief terms, these qualifications are general and dry, but they will take on vitality when tested in experience. They call for a high order of character. Like a certain lubricating oil, the correspondent must be four in one. These four qualities of style must blend in one style, and that will be the man himself.