Mar 25

This letter could change a life: The power of internal communications

A cartoon in the Sunday Grand Rapids Press caught my eye yesterday: Hieroglyphics that pictured a teenager slicing a stone to create a tablet, then chiseling words into it before sealing it into an envelope and mailing it.

The caption in the eighth panel? Friend: You sent a handwritten note? Was it weird? Response: Dude, you have no idea.

I receive far fewer handwritten notes or actual letters these days. Usurped by email, the art of letter writing seems both quaint and antiquated. Written communication is now relegated to email – and short ones at that. You don’t dare send three paragraphs in an email for fear it will be dismissed as“too long” and relegated to the “handle later” pile in our increasingly crowded in-boxes.

But a well-written letter can be far more effective than an email. By its very nature, as the cartoon suggests, it takes more time and thought on the part of the sender – and so requires more time and thought from the recipient.

At Sabo PR, we manage a fair number of internal communications for our clients. This has been one of our steadiest service offerings since opening our doors more than 16 years ago. Clients call us when they are stumped by how to address an issue – or, as one said last week, because he wanted our “special touch” to a challenging communication.

Since the beginning of this year alone, we have assisted multiple clients by drafting or editing internal communications on challenging issues, from executive departures and program changes to suicide and business closures. Of course, we get to share good news as well, including new hires, promotions and community events. But more often than not, we’re called in to lend a hand to communicate life-changing news that can be difficult to hear.

So, how do we do it – or how can you write that proverbial letter bearing bad news?

  • People first: This is our constant mantra at Sabo PR. Always lead with the person. Recognize you have challenging news to communicate, and you may be constrained by your HR department, any number of legal requirements and fear of the media. But also recognize a person will be opening that envelope – and proceed accordingly.
  • Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes: When ghostwriting for clients, we start by gathering all the information they want to convey, as well as the backdrop. But then we pause to think about the recipient. Sure, we need to get X, Y and Z across, but we also need to consider how the information will be received and approach the communication with empathy and respect.
  • Be direct and clear: Whether it is bad news or good, be sure to be both direct and clear. Someone reading your letter should be able to understand the points you want to make without resorting to a magic decoder ring. I’ve been on the receiving end of letters that make me scratch my head and ask whoever’s nearby “what does this mean?” Get to your main points sooner rather than later.
  • A little perspective: Of course, adding perspective or context will prevent your letter from being too direct or blunt. After you have shared the main points, adding context to the issue will help defuse a situation and provide answers to any lingering “whys” the recipient may have.
  • A little kindness: It never hurts to approach even the most difficult of communications with kindness. You can be clear, direct and definitive – and still be kind. Be careful, though, not to encourage false hope or to apologize. Again, if you put yourself in the recipient’s shoes, this is a little easier.
  • Skip the jargon and stilt: Some internal communications will be vetted by your attorneys or other technical experts who may be sticklers for precision. While this is typically good, it can quickly lapse into the use of jargon or stilted language. As much as humanly possible, avoid jargon or overly complicated language. If there’s a legal reason for saying something using certain words, consider adding a sentence or two that explains more plainly.

Earlier this month, I picked up the mail and received a letter that made me stop at the mailbox to open it. This particular letter violated just about every recommendation I made above. When I shared it on Facebook a few days later, one of my colleagues quipped it was so poorly written her first impulse was to edit it.

Despite its poor wording, stilted language and utter failure to consider the recipient, it qualifies as one of the most life-changing I will ever receive. The letter was from the state of New York, inquiring whether I wanted to update my status with its adoption registry and receive information about my birth parents.

The initial draft of that letter was, I imagine, ghostwritten from the director of the New York Department of Health in less than 30 minutes. My response has been more than two weeks in the making as I evaluated the consequences of a “yes” or “no.” My letter is going out today and ends with:

Having worked as a temporary secretary while in graduate school, I know that the job of going through and updating old files can be mind-numbing and thankless. But I thank the member of your team who recognized my file was incomplete – and I thank you for reaching out. If it’s possible for one letter to change a life, this may be the one to do so.

I’ll keep you posted on the next of what I hope will be a series of letters.

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