Crafting a letter once and then sending it to multiple customers or members is a smart way to communicate. Standard letters are especially useful in organisations with repetitive processes and a need to send an identical message to many people.
Standard letters reduce costs because the work is done once only and the benefit enjoyed many times. Standard letters also make sure the message is always consistent.
However, just because a letter is ‘standard’ does not mean it is a good piece of communication. Frequently readers misunderstand letters or fail to appreciate their importance.
One common consequence is increased call centre costs. Recipients call to find out what the letter really means.
Tips on writing standard letters
1. Know your purpose in writing
Having a clear outcome in mind is essential when writing anything. You must know why you are writing and the impact you intend to have.
Before putting pen to paper, you need to be able to complete the sentence: “As a result of reading this letter, I want Mr Smith to …..”. It may be that you want Mr Smith to do something, think something, or feel something.
Defining the purpose of the letter helps you determine the content, the style and tone, and the call to action.
2. Understand your readers
The better you know and understand your readers, the more likely your letter will ‘contact’ them. Understand their situation, their current understanding of the material, their fears and desires.
It’s helpful to write down all the questions your reader is likely to have. You can probably guess some of these questions, but the only way you’ll know for sure is to ask people. User research (users – people who will use your letter) is essential when planning to write.
3. Know the situation
Standard letters are sent in response to some previous action, often by the member or customer, or because some threshold has been reached.
Knowing what has triggered the letter provides the context for writing and reading. It is helpful to explain to the reader why they are receiving this letter. The context may be obvious to you but your reader may not.
4. Write to your least sophisticated reader
Standard letters are read across a range of readability levels and across a range of familiarity with the content. Write so your less able readers will comprehend. Writing this way won’t disadvantage your more able readers; it just makes it easier for everybody.
Use plain language principles. Simple words, sentences that make just one point, active voice, etc.
Your readers will appreciate being able to understand your message at first glance, and your call centre will benefit from fewer enquiries generated by unclear letters.
5. Be brief, write point first
Most people are busy. They want to read and understand your letter in the shortest time possible.
Put the main point of your letter at the very beginning. Don’t hold people in suspense. Some readers may only read the first line or two, so don’t keep vital information until the end.
Use as few words as possible to get your message across. If your letter is more than one page long, you reduce the likelihood of it being read completely.
6. Use appropriate variable material
Powerful standard letters include content drawn from your underlying data systems. For example, a superannuation fund may include different information for members aged under 65 than for those over 65.
Including specific information gives your reader a letter that is closely tailored to their needs. They don’t need to figure out for themselves what is relevant and what is not.
Including variable content in standard letters reduces the total number of letters to manage and may reduce system complexity.
7. Test, test, test
You will only know if your letter is working by testing it.
While you are crafting the letter, test early drafts with real users. Ask if they are likely to read the letter, ask if they can understand what it says, ask what they would do as a result of reading it. Refine in response to feedback and re-test.
When your letters are in production, measure if they are achieving purpose. Are people doing what you want them to do when they receive your letter?