Mark Twain once wrote a new acquaintance the following: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.”
The topic today is that antediluvian museum piece, the personal business letter.
This quaint antiquarian form of business communication is a disappearing art form. It is in sad disrepute, condemned to ridicule and contumely by the go-go cutting edge of business. The idea of sending a personal letter is increasingly pooh-poohed (if considered at all) as an inefficient instrument of nostalgia and the past.
Let me be contrarian on this. It is my feeling that entrepreneurs increasingly are abandoning an important communication tool by dismissing the efficacy of the personal letter. Of course, entrepreneurs are not the only ones. The US Post Office is bankrupt because of a huge drop in letters of any kind (along with the innate lumbering inefficiencies of any government bureaucracy.)
Certainly, most small businessmen are uncommonly busy. Emailing, tweeting, and linking in are faster modes of communication. Yet I also believe there is a certain emotional laziness to going too quickly to reaching out just through these insta-presto mediums.
It is a personal thing writing a good business letter. It is a warm medium and can connect people on a more emotional level. Even a simple one line personal thank you note does this. But there are several reasons business folk are quick to abandon it.
- Let’s face it. Most businessmen don’t write very well. Arthur Levitt, past Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bloomberg, has been on a jihad to bring good English back to business. He says much of business writing is cold, shallow, and, often, lacks nuance and color. It is boring to read.
- A good letter requires energy to write with compelling sincerity. A compelling letter means being open and vulnerable and personal, to some extent, to your correspondee—even in a sales letter. While most entrepreneurs are passionate, the business intimacy innate in the process is usually not comfortable or the strong suit for business people.
- Writing isn’t taught or remediated in business school. Sharon Washington, Executive Director of the National Writing Project, says our high schools and undergraduate programs have de-emphasized writing and constant digital communication has eroded basic writing and vocabulary skills. (LOL, OMG, WTF, BRB, etc.) U understand?
So why should the entrepreneur write more personal letters, especially in the sales process?
Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s simply because, since people don’t send letters any more, when you get one you notice it and actually read it. It shows personal attention and a service orientation in the midst of an increasingly impersonal society. (Quick Hint From Heloise—To make your letter have the best impact, use a very high quality of stationary or card.)
As John Donne put it to Sir Henry Wotton (1633), “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.” Thank you, John.