Tutorial 43: leads for personal letters

A personal letter gives you more time to capture the reader’s attention.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
January 17, 2019

You have about 10 to 15 seconds. Often, a personal letter is successful in spite of the copy. But strong, appropriate copy can raise your response by 50 per cent or more.

Even in a personal letter, it’s a good idea to get right to the heart of the issue. But you must do so in a gentle, subtler, less obvious style.

Second, you have to be persuasive. Try to develop a personal tone in the lead sentence. Here’s one way to get started:

‘I am writing to you because…’

When all else fails, this lead will get you started. I often use the lead just to get myself to understand why I am writing the letter. If I can’t finish the sentence, I know that I have not developed an adequate proposition.

Some other possible leads:

‘If you think you have problems…’

‘This letter may break your heart…’

‘You may wonder why…’

‘Come with me to a small island in…’

‘Your help is desperately needed…’

‘You are a special person, and I…’

‘Because of your deep interest…’

‘Please let me tell you about…’

What common element does each headline contain? A personal pronoun.

And beware of any lead sentence containing ‘we’, ‘us’, our’.

Start your letter with a story

This is usually the strongest lead of all.

Every journalist knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, strangely enough, very few letter-writers understand that a story is also worth a thousand words.

Sure, I know – writing about people is more complicated than writing about programmes. You have to be aware of violation of privacy, patient confidentiality, legal snares. But if your letters raise more money…

Most executives seem uncomfortable with a story, while others have this strange compulsive need to browbeat the donor with organisational programmes: case statements, instead of case histories.

Meanwhile, some of the best letters I see open with stories, like the one printed here. Somehow, I got on the mailing list of an organisation called Victory Outreach. The executive director is Robert Alvarado.

Month after month I get a letter from him, a letter that is usually far more exciting than any article in Reader’s Digest. And you know what? I look forward to getting a letter from Robert Alvarado.

He uses a technique that I call the ‘extended story’. He usually starts with a story that really grabs you, then gives a few details, then tells you why he’s writing the letter, and then continues on with the story.

Please notice that in this extract here, almost the entire first page is taken up with the story. Does that bother you? Or, if you were writing the letter, would you shorten the story and move more quickly into the organisational philosophy?

For myself, I believe that the longer you can keep a reader involved in a story, the better chance you have to keep the reader moving through the letter to the very end.

Dear Jerry,

I buried a 16-year-old boy this week. His name was Frankie. Frankie died in an exchange of gunfire between rival gangs.

He didn’t want to die – but joining the local gang was the only way he knew how to live. Like so many others his age, Frankie wanted out of the nightmare of violence and poverty, but didn’t even have the opportunity.

I’m writing to ask for your help in providing that way out.

A few nights ago, Frankie was just hanging out in his neighborhood with a few friends. They were members of ‘First Flats’, a local gang. A car crept by, and gunfire erupted. Everyone scattered, except for Frankie. His sprint to safety had been cut short. He lay sprawled on the pavement with a bullet in his head.

As if to underscore that this was no random act, the car stopped, the rival gang members jumped out of the car, ran over and pumped three more slugs into Frankie’s dying body.

The police have no motive, no suspects – except for a thousand other rival gang members who live within a few miles of where Frankie died. Clearly, this was an act of retaliation. But for which other senseless death? The one last night – or last week?

Frankie didn’t have to die so young. Because there is an answer to the problems that drive thousands of young men and women to the streets, armed with automatic weapons and dangerous drugs. But finding the answers – and changing the lifestyle – takes months of hard work.

You can help provide a place to make those changes – the Victory Outreach Men’s Rehabilitation Home. I see hundreds of young men and women every month who desperately need a chance to start over.

So few agencies are willing or capable of effectively working with gang members. Let’s face it, they’re scary people – even if they are only 16 years old. 

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen_Chapman.jpg#asset:8990:urlGwen Chapman 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 to these tutorials here.

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