The truth about one-page letters

Imagine this. You’re meeting with your lawyer to review an important business contract and she hands you one page. You ask, “Where is the rest of the contract?” and she replies, “We have a rule in our office that contracts can only be one page. I couldn’t get all of the clauses in, but I got the most important ones.”
Absurd, right? Who could possibly imagine that the length of a contract determines its effectiveness? When it comes to contracts, we clearly choose completeness over brevity.
Why is it then that when it comes to letters, we are convinced of the opposite? I can’t tell you how many times clients have asked me to draft a letter with the overriding instruction being it has to be one page.
I’m well aware of the many famous quotations that say it’s harder to write a short letter than a longer one. And as a writer, I know that my first draft will almost always be too long. But that just says that three pages might be better than four and yes, that one might be better than two. It doesn’t mean that a one-page letter is a necessarily superior form of communication.
To be clear, I’m not talking about perfunctory letters that are simply designed to convey a small amount of information. The letter letting me know that my electricity is about to be disconnected for non-payment doesn’t need to be more than one page.
But if your letter is intended to have impact, to shape opinion or to influence decision-making, imposing a one-page limit is counter-productive. In discussing clarity v. impact, Seth Godin says, “…often, being crystal clear about categorization, topic sentences and the deliverable get in the way of actually making an impact.”
It seems to me that if you are bothering to write in the first place, you might as well do the best possible job of communicating. You demonstrate your respect for your customers by not sacrificing form over function. You are saying to the reader that you are so important to our organization that we are prepared to take the time to fully explain what it is we have to say.
On top of that, multi-page letters deliver greater results. For example, in the fundraising world, they have been proven to result in more donations.
Let’s turn this around. The real question isn’t whether a one-page letter is superior. Rather, it’s why your customers or constituents won’t read a multi-page letter from your organization. The answers to that question may reveal deeper, more important issues. Here are some possibilities.
Your letters aren’t well written. The insistence on brevity is often an admission of ineptitude. People read columns, articles and books every day. They all exceed one page. If a letter is well written – with an effective hook to interest the reader – and with content and style that is compelling, people will make it through that extra page or two.
It’s not important to them. If people aren’t reading your letters, it may indicate that you have lost touch with them. What you are writing about isn’t important to them. Or, apropos to the point above, you have in the first paragraph or two failed to establish why the reader should continue on. In either case, you need to spend a little more time re-connecting with your reader.
They are not engaged. If your customers don’t perceive there to be any value in their association with your company, they are not going to be interested in your letters – whether they are one page or four. Any communication with a constituent is only as good as the experience that has preceded it. You may have a much larger problem on your hands that has more to do with branding than letter-writing.
The reality is that when someone says, “People will never read more than one page” it’s not an assessment of the inclination or ability of the reader. It’s an admission that there’s something lacking in the relationship with the customer to whom the letter is being written.
So, the one-page letter becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Providing less information and context diminishes the possibility of engagement and makes it even less likely that the constituent will read a longer letter in the future. Unless you break the cycle, you will be doomed to a future of brief but ineffective communication.
What do you think?
Do you insist on one-page letters? Are people just too rushed to be bothered to read multi-page letters? Do you have any experience or data to shed light on the question?

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