Is Letter Writing Dead?

I mean the old-fashioned letter with a date, inside address, a salutation, body of the letter, closing and signature. What passes as a “business” letter in email is really nothing more than some phrases and short-cuts like BTW (by the way) TTYL (talk to you later).  Emails are piling up in our mailboxes.  Half of them we delete without even reading them. I wonder how much impact these emails are having and whether an honest-to-goodness formal letter might actually cut through the clutter.

Now you would think it’s easy to write a letter. I accept that the new style of writing is informal (credit the Internet) and most often your letter will be read in an email.  People nowadays want to get information in short takes.  So the new rules of letter writing are:
•    Get to the point quickly.  What is the purpose of the letter?  To inform, to educate, to sell something?  Tell the reader upfront.  Be sure to use complete sentences that make sense – you know, the old-fashioned subject, verb, object construction still has something going for it.
•    Include supporting facts if you want the reader to do something.
•    Summarize the action you want to the reader to take.
•    Include the timing of next steps. Are you going to do something for the reader or do you expect the reader to do something for you? By when? It takes time to write a compelling short letter. As the philosopher and writer Blaise Pascal famously said, “I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.”

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  1. Call me old fashioned, but I just do not feel comfortable in making a introduction of my company via email. A first time contact, I feel should be more formal and creditable via the means of a real paper letter.Yes, postage is expensive but, I believe it is a sign that you will not sacrifice quality, just to save money.

    Once a relationship has been established, then email
    correspondance feels ok to me.

    Potential clients often say to me”just email me your proposal”. I am
    not particularly comfortable with that but, I understand why. It often needs to be forwarded between departments heads. I usually email the proposal per my potential client’s request, but follow up by mailing a hard copy as well. I often have other information that I wish to share (company overview information) along with the proposal.

  2. When the competition zigs, zag. I think a good old-fashioned letter could help companies stand out from the crowd and what great advice on how to do it in a modern way.

  3. Total believer the the written word still is the most valued. However, agree, we want to make sure when we are writing letters that we take out “fluff words” — adverbs. People appreciate your efforts with the written word. Did a survey with managers and they said that they appreciated handwritten notes far more than emails or voice mail after an interview.


  4. My handwriting has atrophied to the point that I don’t think I could hand-write a legible letter. But I agree with the email pitch – don’t do it! Anytime I email someone for the first time, it is 2 sentences: “Would you like to have a conversation about your SEO? Let me know how I can best reach you.” Pithy is key in email writing – no one wants to (and typically doesn’t) slog through a pitch, your background, your company history, etc. Keep it short, to the point, with specific action items for follow-up on either party’s part. And never send an intro email with an attachment!

  5. Writing a real letter will get you noticed. I once wrote a marketing letter to introduce myself to an agricultural newsletter publisher. When I followed up with a phone call, he complimented me on my letter, saying that he was surprised that there were still people out there who know how to write letters. From that, he proceeded to give me a wealth of good advice for my career search.

    So write those letters! They’re worth every minute of time and every cent of postage!

  6. Wonderful post and great comments! I believe this down economy has gotten us all back to basics, including basic values and basic communication skills, and this includes letter writing. I am convinced a well-written letter does indeed make you stand out, as Mark pointed out. To Kathy’s point, the elimination of adverbs is important. She’ll enjoy a recent Copyblogger post by Ali Hale who refers to advers as “vampire words” that suck the blood out of your message:

    I will take this conversation one step further and suggest that there is a place for handwritten notes in business too–primarily thank yous, referrals, and informal contacts.

  7. I think it depends on the situation and the preferences of the parties. You have to be prepared to meet your customer’s desires and communications methods.

    I recent attended an – in person – networking meeting where some participants commented they are turned off and refuse to deal with emails. They do not even have an email address on their business cards. I quickly pointed out that they may be loosing a significant amount of potential customers.

    Although I prefer talking on the phone and meeting face to face with customers and clients, we must deal with the fact that others have different preferences. I personally dislike only communicating electronically. It makes the whole intercourse impersonal. I cannot fully gauge reactions through the written word. However, I also know if we do not accommodate our prospects and clients, they may no longer wish to deal with us.

  8. Thank you one and all AND I am with you all on this. I have taught for years, when the world Zigs you should ZAG. I built a Real Estate business on it. No one wanted to make calls. I DID IT. I got listings and sales.

    When I started my Telephone Training Business is was built on: Intention, NOT FEAR. DIALING for Dollars is what we used to call it and then I said: NO….NOT….Instead DIAL, GET permission to talk. Talk and then make the client FEEL right and SMART to talk to you, not wrong or stupid. Make it Safe for the Client to use you.

    Here is how to do it, right NOW:
    * Buy a bunch of personal notes.
    * Write five a day and
    * Mail them.

    Your numbers will go up. I challenge any consultant who does this. Then, we can compare results. ARE YOU IN? It’s NOT all in the numbers, yes, you can contact many through these tweeters but who are they? AND why are they following me?

    We need to have a strong Intention to Prevail and Sell and Get the job done. So, tweet, tweet, tweet and then send 5 personal thank you notes, acknowledgments or introduction. Pretty soon you wont have time to tweet, you will be working.

    It’s a contest. Who WINS? …We all do.
    Judy McKee, Sales Trainer

  9. Jeannette
    As you know–I am a total believer in the art of the ‘letter’ and note.
    It brings back the personal touch–and my theory is besides my online-‘high tech-high touch’ system–that sends letters in the US mail–I also faithfully write and stamp 3 handwritten personal notes a day to a client, prospect, friend–whoever to express thank you and to stay in touch!

    I love your blog and as you are the the BEST person in the world on “Personal Positioning!”

  10. Being a designer of greeting cards, I feel a personal sense of responsibility to help keep the written word alive! I’m glad to see others are still writing notes too.

    From a business standpoint, writing a handwritten note to a client, prospect, or business connection, is an easy way to stand out from the competition. But it’s also just a nice thing to do. In this age of online communication, it’s such a treat to get a card in the mail. Let’s keep writing!