In business writing, gratitude is more than a platitude

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Coaches preach it, counsellors teach it, yogis reach for it. The practice of gratitude creates such potent benefits that it has spawned whole product lines of journals, home décor items, and corporate training programs.

Gratitude, you might say, is the grease that lubricates our day-to-day activities. When you’re grateful for your child, you can change their diaper without holding your nose. When you’re grateful for clean, fresh-smelling clothes, doing laundry becomes a pleasant ritual rather than a chore.

Yet many businesspeople seem reluctant to express thankfulness in their everyday writing. Or when they do express it, they resort to trite language that sounds like it comes from Hallmark rather than their own heart.

This resistance to the free-flow of gratitude baffles me because a heartfelt thank-you offers such a simple way to nurture an emotional connection with your audience. And when you infuse your writing with gratitude, the writing process becomes more enjoyable. There’s pleasure in performing a genuine act of communication rather than a written transaction.

While memories of Thanksgiving dinner still linger, now is the perfect time to consider how you might infuse your emails and documents with more gratitude. Here are five common opportunities for expressing thanks. Which of these might you seize this week?

1. Proposal cover letters. Whether you’re writing a formal cover letter or an informal email, let your audience know how much you appreciate the opportunity to share your proposal with them. 

Avoid opening your correspondence with “Enclosed please find a proposal for…” or “Attached is a proposal for….” Instead, find a natural way to thank your readers for reading your document. For instance, you might try something like one of these examples:

  • Thank you for inviting us to submit a proposal for…
  • Thank you for the opportunity to share with you our ideas for…
  • We appreciate your considering us as your partner for the Such-and-Such project…

2. Status updates. You can inject positivity into a routine document by thanking team members, individually or as a group, for their contributions. For instance, rather than just noting that “Phase 1 of development is now complete,” you might give a shout out to the lead developer who worked overtime to make a key milestone. 

When you’re updating a client, you can also look for opportunities to acknowledge how they’ve helped move the project forward. For example, you might thank them for completing a review or for providing required samples. In psychological terms, saying thank-you can act as a positive reinforcement, helping encourage future cooperation.

3. Simple requests. A psychologist once told me of a powerful lesson she learned from a supervisor early in her career. Every time the supervisor wrapped up a meeting, she would close by saying, “Thank you for doing such-and-such.” She could have concluded by reviewing a list of action items, but she chose to take the alternative gratitude route. As a result, her young trainee not only followed through on her tasks but did so cheerfully.

You can mimic this motivational manager by making your last word in an email request a thank-you. I don’t mean that you should sign every email with “Thanks!”—a thank-you without context doesn’t carry much weight. Instead, take a few seconds to craft a personalized thank-you related to your request.

Here are some examples you might use as models:

  • Thank you for updating your records.
  • Thanks for giving this concern your prompt attention.
  • Thank you for your help with this background research. It will make the analysts’ job so much easier!
  • I appreciate your pitching in to help us make our milestone on time.
  • I appreciate your help—and I know the client will too.
  • Thanks for lending a hand with this.

4. Instructions for a team member. When you’re rushing to give directions, it can be tempting to just say “Jump!” and expect that your reader will leap at your command. But even if your reader jumps on cue, does their compliance mean they’re collaborating happily?

Over the years, I’ve had some interesting discussions with various leaders about the virtue of baking motivational language into instructional memos. Some perceive so-called “niceties”, like “please” and “thank you”, as extras they shouldn’t have to insert when writing to a direct report. One young military officer once told me it was not only a waste of time but a sign of weakness to give the impression that he was making a request when assigning a task.

I’m not an expert on leadership, but I do know that transformational leaders—the kind of leaders who inspire their people to go above and beyond—show they care. And expressing gratitude goes further along that line than expecting obedience. A thank-you adds just two syllables to a message, but it makes the difference between an order and an invitation to participate. 

5. Confirmation emails. It’s a smart habit to follow up a meeting with an email summarizing the most important discussion points and decisions. Such routine messages can, however, do more than simply set the record straight. They can also help the team bond.

Start your confirmation email with a genuine thank-you, and you’ll add human warmth to what might otherwise be an impersonal report. The key is to make your thank-you sincere by personalizing it.

“Thanks for a great meeting” sounds bland, but compare these more specific versions:

  • Thanks for a great meeting. It was really helpful to hear diverse perspectives on the McKenzie account.
  • Thanks for a great meeting. I had no idea we had enough creative brainpower to generate 18 different ideas for the new marketing campaign!
  • Thanks for a great meeting. I came away from today’s conversation eager to hear more about your plans for expanding to India.

Whatever you’re writing, chances are that the people reading it have been bruised by rudeness at some point during their day. So why not take advantage of opportunities to surprise your audience with a bit of gratitude? Positive vibes have a way of rebounding, and a little authentic thankfulness can brighten not just your reader’s day but yours too.


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