Tuto­r­i­al 26: How to make a short let­ter work

Quick­ly, let me tell you in one word why I write short let­ters: politics.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
February 03, 2019

Executives absolutely love short letters.

But who writes long letters? Usually seasoned nonprofit executives. Writers who work for large organisations. Freelance copywriters who are concerned about giving the client what they need, not what they want.

One of the first things I discovered back in the 1960s was that I could often ‘beat the control’ if the control contained a short letter and a brochure. I would just throw out the brochure and write a six-page letter. It usually worked.

The tragedy of the long versus short letter debate is that advocates on both sides forget that the real winner is usually a letter of an appropriate length, whatever that may be.

In my thinking, a short letter is a two-page letter, printed on one sheet of paper (front and back). That means that a four-page letter, printed on two sheets of paper, is about average length. Six pages is a long letter. Eight pages is a nice, long letter. And especially for prospect packages. The longest surviving control packages are four or more pages.

But if you have to write a short letter, here are 10 rules for writing a successful short letter:

1) The appeal must have an unusual ring of urgency to it.

You understand what I mean.

2) An emotional reason for making a gift.

Short letters tend to lack emotion and end abruptly before the reader is crying.

3) Specific mechanical instructions.

In a short letter, often there’s not enough space to tell a reader exactly what to do with a reply device, how to fill it in, what size of gift to give. Somewhere in the package you have to solve that problem. Instructions plant a suggestion in the mind of the donor, which in turn gets their hands moving.

4) Specific dollar amounts.

In a short letter, one exact figure will usually work better than the cliche of ‘please send $10, $20, $30, $50, $100, or whatever you can’.

5) Personalisation.

Real personalisation. A short personalised letter will usually out pull a short ‘dear friend’ letter, because when you see your name and address you immediately focus on the letter. You’re just too curious not to read it if your name is at the top.

6) Focus.

The purpose of the letter must leap out at the reader. In a long letter you can work your way toward the central purpose. In a short letter, you’ve got to nail it instantly.

7) A premium.

How many successful prospecting packages do you know right now, in the mail, that do not have a premium? After you finish reading this tutorial, go and count. You may find that about eight out of 10 use a premium.

8) Popularity.

A ‘popular’ organisation can often get away with writing a short letter. The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, CARE: these names are uniquely associated with a specific cause. You don’t need two pages of copy to introduce the organisation.

9) House lists.

Try a short letter here first. The donor already knows what your organisation is all about.

10) Start collecting short letters that you feel meet some of the above requirements.

You’ll be surprised at how difficult it is to find them.

And finally, don’t fall in the trap of thinking that you can get by with a short letter because you don’t have time to write a long letter. It takes me almost twice as long to write a two-pager as it does to write a four-pager. That’s because I have to be precise and use words with diligence.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger was revered in direct marketing circles as the ‘dean of direct mail’. Many years ago, Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII. All 57 of them are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide that covers everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising. Sadly, Jerry passed away in August 2023. 

These tutorials were edited and presented to SOFII by Gwen Chapman. Gwen is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa. She explains the importance of these tutorials here.

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