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The Inexplicable Art of Writing Letters

A well-written letter is a thing of beauty. It is your voice. Your salesperson. Your pitch. And in many ways, it is the most important element in any direct mail package. I typically spend as much or more time on the letter as on everything else combined.

But giving advice on this topic is frustrating because letter writing is an art, not a science. Everyone wants the “secret formula,” but there is none. Oh, there are formulas that are great for analyzing how letters are structured but none that are helpful when actually writing. At any rate, people ask me questions about letters, and I thought you might like to see some of my answers.

Q: Should you use headlines or pictures in a letter?

A: If you want your letter to appear businesslike, I would say no. However, many letters can benefit from this approach. I often use it for straightforward consumer mail. In a recent newsletter subscription offer, I placed a large photo of the newsletter at the top left of page one and a bold benefit headline on the right side. I also included a reference to the offer and a call to action.

This accomplishes several things. It enlivens the letter. It draws the eye. It telegraphs the offer and main benefit. And it pushes the letter text to the lower half of the page, making it shorter and easier to read. If you can get someone to start reading a letter, you’ve won half the battle.

Q: What is the best salutation?

If your budget allows, go for personalization. Any letter I receive that starts “Dear Dean Rieck” is far more likely to get read than one with a generic salutation. But if you can’t personalize, use a salutation that connects with the reader as closely as possible. “Dear Cat Lover” for cat owners, for example. If you’re mailing to a business audience, use an occupational or professional title such as “Dear Family Doctor” or “Dear Marketing Manager.” If nothing else works, “Dear Friend” is usually a safe bet.

Q: What’s the best way to begin a letter?

There are an infinite number of ways to begin. I generally try to create something that’s short, attention-grabbing and maybe even a little startling. Here’s an example from a letter I wrote to sell a home-buying book:

Dear Friend,

I could just kick myself!

A couple years ago, my wife and I bought a new home. After we moved in, our neighbor asked us over for coffee.

What a shock! He had the same house design, but it was full of all the extras we couldn’t afford – like a fireplace, panel doors, tile, oak cabinets. It was stunning.

When I asked how much it cost, he smiled. “Nothing. I knew how to get the extras added on free.” And it was so simple, I could have done it, too. If I had only known the secret!

Notice how punchy and intriguing the first line is. And how the copy plunges right into the meat of the sales pitch with a story full of specifics. This was preceded by a headline and offer copy at the top of the letter so the reader would be oriented to the letter’s subject. And it was followed by a call to action.

Here’s another example, this time for a newsletter:

Dear Colleague,


That’s how Diana Neeley, a secretary in Roseburg, Oregon, described it. And frankly, I think that says it all.

Because it’s more than a newsletter, it’s the world’s most powerful office training tool. And it’s written especially for you and your staff – managers, supervisors, assistants, and secretaries.

This is even punchier and gets to the point even faster. In all cases, you must involve the reader instantly. Make a startling statement. Tell an interesting story. Hit an emotional hot button. Or just state the offer. This last approach is often the best tactic and offers the least room for error. I used this with great success in a business-to-business lead package for a high-tech company:

Dear John Doe,

I have a FREE Demo CD you should see. May I send it to you?

It demonstrates (the product) and how dozens of leading companies are using it to revolutionize the way they work.

The letter is on company letterhead with no frills. It’s personalized. And it slams the offer right on the table. It’s followed by a bulleted list of very specific success stories.

Q: Where should you introduce the offer?

Page one. I’ve seen wonderfully persuasive letters where the offer is presented later, but my rule is to present the offer in some form on the very first page. When I use the headline approach, I usually present the offer after the header material and before the salutation. Then I try to include a reference to the offer again in the letter text somewhere on page one.

Next month, I’ll answer questions about how long a letter should be, how to end a letter, whether you need a P.S., and more.

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