Five golden rules for getting your letters and emails read

Sometimes you have to write to customers, and sometimes you want to. Regardless, it is a surprisingly expensive exercise once you add the time it takes to plan the correspondence and the cost of copywriting, list management, legal, production, design and delivery.

Judging by those I receive as a customer and those I review for clients, most organisations try their best to get their emails and letters right. They look professional and read well. So why is it that so many bad news letters trigger complaints and cancellations, and good news letters get ignored? How can we stop wasting our time getting it so wrong?

Through the course of my work in behavioural economics I have developed some “golden rules of letter writing”, designed to get you the result you are looking for. Here are five to get you on your way.

1. Take action vs. do nothing

The first decision you need to make is what you want people to do with your letter or email. Do you want them to take action or do you want them to do nothing? This is your behavioural objective, and it will set the tone for your correspondence.

If you want your customer to take action, you need to include a strong “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) and make completing the action easy. Examples of wanting your customer to take action include:

• Taking up a new offer;
• Updating their details;
• Booking an appointment; or
• Turning up to an appointment.

But imagine you need to notify customers of a price increase or reduction of entitlements? In this case you won’t want them to take actions like complaining or cancelling so the name of the game is to make them accept whatever you are saying.

For ‘do nothing’ correspondence you can try including a WIIFM to stay, but these tend to be viewed quite cynically by customers. Instead, focus on providing a reason for your decision and outline any actions you’ve already taken to reduce the impact on them.

Also bear in mind that the longer or more convoluted the letter, the less likely your customer will be to read it. Likewise, making contact seem more effort than its worth will increase your odds of retention (at least in the short term).

2. Positive vs. negative tension

The great orators of our time — Obama, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Steve Jobs — all knew the secret of engaging an audience.


People will listen more intently if you create tension by confounding their expectations, and then promise relief. This holds true for letters too.

A letter without tension is dull. When something is dull it is ignored or forgotten. That’s great if you want people to do nothing, but bad if you want them to do something.

There are two types of tension you can work with.

Positive tension is used to grab their attention and suggest they are worse off if they don’t do what you’re suggesting. “Your domain is about to expire”, for example.
Negative tension is what you have to negate. This is the form of anxiety that gets in the way of your customer committing to the desired action. A letter from a doctor or dentist, for instance, will likely trigger fear of what they’ll find, and result in procrastination or avoidance. Same goes for any business who is asking their customer to call or click — you need to make sure your customer knows what happens if they do and they feel comfortable doing so.

3. Good vs. bad news

Whether you have good or bad news to share will impact how you construct your correspondence. If it’s good news you will want to introduce it early so you can prime your customer to be in a positive state of mind.

Consider including the good news in the subject line so your customer will be encouraged to read on. Examples might include: “Your application has been successful” or “We are refunding your account in full”. From there you will want to include the positive news early in the body of the correspondence (for example, in the first paragraph or first couple of sentences).

If it’s bad news, avoid including it in your subject line because that will trigger a negative frame of mind. Instead keep the subject line relevant but ambiguous so they have to read the letter to find the answer, giving you a chance to contextualise the news. Here you’d be looking for subject lines like: “The outcome of your application” or “Update on your account inquiry”.

In the body of the letter, be sure to recap the situation before you hit them with bad news. Where possible refer to external standards (regulations, standards) or policies so they feel they have been treated fairly. Give them a reason for the bad news and try to ensure that reason is not personal.

4. Active vs. passive voice

Your customer will react less favourably to bad news that seems to have been determined subjectively rather than objectively. In other words, being told, “I have decided that you are not eligible” is going to inflame your customer more than, “it has been decided that you are not eligible”. For that reason, when relating bad news try to use a passive rather than active voice.  

Be warned, however, because too much passive voice can make you sound hands-off and uncaring. The trick is to use passive voice to describe the outcome of the decision (“it has been decided”), but use more active language elsewhere in the correspondence to signal your accountability for the broader situation. Try words and phases like “unfortunately”, “I’m sorry to tell you”, and “we share your disappointment” to humanise the situation.

For good news you can use more active language and pronouns (for example, “We are excited to share with you”), but I would still recommend not being too heavy handed with “I have” statements because you risk sounding like an egotistical, omnipotent being.

5. Letters vs. emails

Can you get away with the same copy for letters and emails? Almost, but not quite. Like letters, emails should use bolding and bullets to help your customer scan for key messages, and choose a subject line that will engage. However, compared with letters, for emails you:

• Can be less formal;
• Should use shorter paragraphs;
• Can include hyperlinks, but do so judiciously (too many will distract);
• Should consider using “Re:” even if it isn’t a reply/return;
• Can include attachments, but must give them a reason why they should bother opening them; and
• Should make sure the sender address is a person’s name. If you can’t do this, make sure you choose the address carefully. “” may trigger defensiveness, and “” just signals that you have so many there is a whole department to manage them!

Letters and emails are a precious opportunity to engage with your customers. Traditional copywriting may get you part of the way, but using these golden rules will elevate your message from prose to persuasion.


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