23 January, 2019

Crafting the Personal Letter: My Second Gavel Club Speech

The second project in Toastmasters International's "Competent Communication" workbook is to give a speech that follows some kind of order — chronological, spatial, logical, et cetera. This morning's Gavel Club meeting marked my second time as a scheduled speaker. I gave the following seven-minute speech on a subject I happen to know quite a lot about. It went a little like this.

Good morning Gavel Club and guests, especially the generous Mr. De Jarnette, who volunteered to be here while Mr. Curry's out of the country.

By a show of hands, who here writes personal letters? Okay, and how many of you get replies thanking you for being so engaging, so entertaining, that your letters are passed around for people you don't even know to appreciate? I write a lot of personal letters and actually do get that kind of response. Today I'm going to clue you in on some techniques for writing the kind of correspondence that someone you care about will want to show around, possibly to people who don't even know you. That's the true power of the personal letter: to bring people together in a meaningful way, to bridge a gap of time and the broadest distance.

We begin at the beginning. Looking at a blank sheet of paper, some guys take one look at it and mentally freeze. It might seem obvious, but quite a few people neglect to put a date at the top of the page. Why is this important? There are a couple of reasons. The first is to fix its place in time. It gives your reader a concrete reference point. They can see this and think, "He wrote this on Wednesday." If they happen to pause for a moment and think back to what they were doing on this particular date, it means that they're already engaging. Tiny details like this matter. Also, success in writing a standout letter means that the person it's addressed to hangs on to it. A really good letter is a meaningful keepsake. The date anchors your letter in time, just like on a precious picture in your photo album.

People let the page and the idea of letter-writing bully them into doing things a particular way. To give someone a memorable, moving, or entertaining experience, you've got to break with the norm. Give them something new and a little different. Just like with writing a speech, your opening sentence should pique curiosity. This is where a lot of guys get stuck. I cannot even tell you how many times I've heard someone say, "I don't know what to write about, because nothing ever happens — it's the same thing, day after day." They're letting the events of their day control the contents of their minds, which sounds pretty miserable, if you ask me. Why limit yourself?

Start with a thought, an inspirational quote, a random fact, a weird dream you had, a news item — something that jump-starts your mind and gets you moving. Whatever you do, do not begin How are you? I am fine. Not only is that not entertaining, it's a dead end. Where can you possibly go after that, except right on the track of relaying events: This happened, then this happened, then this happened. True, you've got to put some facts in your letter, but too many people forget that it's a letter they're writing, not an article. Leave the reporting to the news media. A great letter is made up more of impressions and ideas, the content of a mind. Give opinions, recap an interesting conversation you recently had, write out a poem or a rap, tell a story. What makes a letter personal is how you express yourself in it.

There are three things that your letters should always include. The first? Description. You want sensory stuff: sights, sounds, smells. These are relatable things that put whoever you're writing right into the factual content of your letter.

The second thing is paragraph structure. A lot of letters are just these long big blocks of words, one thought rammed up against another that might not have anything to do with the one before it. On this goes, right down the page. If you indent or insert a line break when you're about to change subjects, a reader will absorb more of what you're trying to get across. The organization lets them pause and consider what they just read.

The third and most important feature of every good letter is curiosity about the recipient. Ask questions! Invite their opinions on subjects you believe interest them. You know how good it feels when someone expresses an interest in your life? Give your recipient that feeling. Always remember that your letter is for another person. It should interest and, if possible, entertain.

You don't have to be a great writer to write a great letter, you just have to keep these five things in mind: put the date at the top, include ideas and opinions, use lots of description, organize your subjects, and ask questions. I promise, the responses you get will be positive.

Like the letters it encouraged my audience to write, the speech was well received.

1 comment:

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