When I lived in the US, I loved Thanksgiving. No presents, decorations, or religion – just eating together and gratitude.
Now I’m back in London, I’m grateful that I still get invited to a Thanksgiving dinner. Every November about twenty of us, some Americans, some not, clear a space in a friend’s living-room, shove trestle tables together, and light candles. Everybody brings something to eat, and after the first couple of courses we all name one thing for which we’re grateful. (One year, five people chose the NHS.)
It’s always moving to listen to other people speak. Usually, somebody chokes up or reaches out and squeezes a partner’s hand. There’s that beautiful hushed feeling when people stop fidgeting and really listen.
What does that have to do with you, and with writing?
Well, most of us have to write thank you letters or emails at work. Sometimes it’s a joy, but if you’re thanking yet another mid-level donor whom you’ve never met, you might find yourself falling back on the same old templates. Here’s an example of an opening to a typical thank you letter from a large UK charity:
Thank you so much for your donation of £1,000 to the Charity. I am delighted that you have chosen to continue your support as Patrons. Your support over the past two years made a real difference to our learning programmes and it is fantastic that you have chosen to continue to support us in this way.
You’ll notice that the word “support” gets used three times, but that’s the kind of watering down that’s common in template letters, isn’t it? You may also notice that it’s impossible to identify the charity. I removed the real name, of course, but the same opening could be used for almost any charity.
You can do better. To get going, here’s an exercise you can try at home.
Think of somebody who helped you in the past – a teacher, an older relative, a trusted friend. Choose somebody you didn’t thank properly at the time, perhaps because you were too preoccupied with your problems.
Now’s your chance. Write to that person and thank them. Really thank them. From the heart. Then read the rest of this blog post.
I can’t read what you’ve written, but I’m going to place some bets.
- You got straight to the point in the first sentence.
- You used the word “you.”
- You conjured up a memory or experience you have in common.
- You know there are many barriers between you and your reader’s attention (time, failing memory, possibly lingering resentment on their side). So you didn’t waffle.
- You assumed nothing. You don’t know how this person feels about you today. You wrote with humility and an open mind, using natural language in your own voice.
- If you read your letter out loud to somebody else, you could bring tears to that person’s eyes.
You want to give your donors that same special feeling. You can’t wear your heart on your sleeve every time, but I bet you could steal a simple phrase or two from your personal letter and use it in your next thank you letter at work. You might start by conjuring up a real experience. You might say “you” a lot. Explain right away exactly what the donor has made happen — people often do more good than they realise, and equally they often assume their gift has achieved very little. It’s your job to show them that their actions have real meaning, in real people’s lives.
In other words, write a letter that nobody could else write. One that people are thankful to receive – so thankful, they might even give again.
Next month: what’s on every great writer’s gift list – and should be on yours…