The Enduring Power of Letters

Choosing the right words in business communications is vital but putting those words in the right format can make the difference between them hitting home and going unread. At Message House we write every day and so regularly appraise the power of the various forms of communication we could deploy for different purposes and scenarios. Recently we’ve turned the spotlight on a traditional form of words that it’s easy to overlook.

“This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment”

These words of Katherine Mansfield introduce Letters Live, a hugely popular series of celebratory performances of ‘the enduring power of correspondence’. Whilst undoubtedly past readers such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Kylie Minogue have exerted intrinsic allure to the audiences, the letters themselves evoked emotion, prompted hilarity and provoked thoughts for long after. What the creators of the event respect and have reminded us is how varied, how vibrant and how important letters can be and how writing a good letter, for whatever purpose, is a skill that deserves attention and acclaim.

Of course, a good email (the nearest equivalent to a letter in that it’s a variably-sized person-to-person message unlike a broader-cast tweet or blog), one that communicates effectively and memorably, shares many of the same characteristics. But the act of writing on paper adds, both literally and metaphorically, a further dimension which enhances the weight and significance to the contents. So let’s look at letters, those written personal communications that usually start with ‘Dear..’ and that we can physically open and touch, and see what still makes them important and useful, even though we have quicker, cheaper, and easier ways to send words to others.

You can’t ignore a letter - they impose themselves on you in way an email can’t. You can scroll past a message in a crowded inbox but something that lands on the mat or is handed to you is physically intrusive and demands attention, even if only to remove it from view, and it is a concrete reminder of a person or subject. As Tom Hanks wrote in his recent homage to typewriters; ‘no one ever chucks anything type written into the trash after just one reading. Emails? I delete most before I see the electronic signature’. Even the act of disposing of a letter takes effort and demands more engagement than pressing ‘delete’ - recycling or a more theatrical ripping or burning are visibly decisive acts, as irrevocable as they are symbolic. So letters demand engagement on every level.

Once a letter is gone it’s gone. A handwritten letter torn into fragments is not backed up on a giant server – the words of the writer are consigned to oblivion, whether this outcome is desirable or to be regretted later. A letter can’t be accidentally forwarded to the whole office and when it arrives it’s in a sealed envelope and unlikely to have been ‘hacked’. And there’s little chance that the content can be misappropriated - barring carelessness it stays within the control of the recipient. Only speech can be made to disappear as fully effectively and permanently.

On the other hand, letters can, if deliberately preserved, survive long after their senders and recipients have gone. Letters we write now can form a paper trail back to their writers and intended readers, but their usefulness as windows on the past are perhaps less about the events or actions they document and more about how our forebears expressed ourselves, the language and written conventions of the time. This is in part because letters don’t lend themselves to short cuts, pro forma vocabulary and clichés as much as digital communications do – we don’t draw emojis or use text speak in letters. They’re of necessity longer hand documents, full of idiosyncrasies, un-spell-checked mistakes and illegible elements, showing where the writer struggled and therefore also potentially revealing of mood, mindset and of social mores in a way that an email might not be.

These features of letters relate to their physicality. Writing and reading, sending and receiving are multisensory experiences: the sound of the letterbox, the texture of the paper, the smell of the ink, the taste of the envelope seal, the gut-felt anticipation while something is ‘in the post’. Letters have bespoke paraphernalia and rituals which link us to other letter writers across the centuries and the act of writing and posting is physical. Letters are objects that can be kept physically close as treasures, can be accompanied by other meaningful items and in some contexts the fact that the sender and recipient have both touched the same item, across time and space, can bring comfort or joy – the acronym S.W.A.L.K. may not always be metaphorical.

Above all, these days a letter is a sign of effort and of the perceived importance of the subject matter. Writing and sending a letter is a committed act, not a casual one. Consider the communications that are still delivered in the form of letters: the uplifting, such as fan mail (David Walliams, the children’s author, recently showed an image of a typical day’s worth of post from his readers – a sack full), the lifechanging, such as exam results, the official, (like a summons for jury service) and the personal, such as apologies and thank you notes. Letters are used as declarations when the contents and signature are required for legal purposes, when cut through is desired (how many of us have written a formal letter of complaint when we suspect a phone call or email won’t carry the same weight?) and when we have something to say and no other means to say it, like the child writing ‘Dear Mummy, I’m sorry I…’.

But will letters gradually be superseded by other forms of communication, even if those do lack the physical and metaphorical fingerprints of the writers? Will they continue to be seen to have a distinct and valuable purpose and to be deemed fit to deliver it? Or will be they be the vinyl of communications, a nostalgic complement to other forms of the written word for diehard aficionados?

Research is often cited (e.g. Royal Mail’s ‘Mail in uncertain times’ 2017) to show that the content of letters is more trusted and believed than emails and scientific arguments are given in favour of print over plasma. According to various neuroscience papers, although we read faster on screen, we are likely to do so less thoroughly and deeply than reading on paper, not least because we can often see only a smaller chunk of the whole and so lack contextual reference which is important in longer documents. On screen we are more likely to read in a non-linear way, eyes roving around, which can affect the nature of comprehension. Reading on paper provides ‘spatio-temporal markers’ – the act of touching paper, turning pages aids memory of the words by making it easier to remember where you read something, whereas scrolling on a screen makes it more difficult. The over-used words of some corporate communications, highlighted in our Language of Reputation research, whose ubiquity compromises their salience and engagement must fare worst of all on screen. So that all looks positive for letters. But will future generations, for whom the habit of using screen-based communications will be embedded from a young age, develop innate skills to compensate for and address this disparity and so overcome the trust deficit?

Perhaps they will. But does it matter? Probably not, in the sense that communication will still flow freely person to person, people will still send each other physical reminders of each other’s presence, even if they come in an Amazon box, and find ways to make their presence noticed and felt. We will find better ways of both preserving and permanently destroying emails and will develop new special rituals and gestures around them. But there is one respect in which our world will be poorer if we stop writing letters. There is a discipline to writing a letter. The accepted structure and layout aside, there are valuable skills involved that aren’t demanded by other forms of communication, skills which are important to nurture for the clarity of all communication. Knowing how to spell accurately and confidently, without automatic checking of spelling, grammar and syntax, is part of a wider mastery of language. Writing by hand and getting it right first time without a backspace key requires the ability to plan, to pre-order one’s thoughts decisively, to commit to the page. Even a stream of consciousness will need some narrative arc to it to reach a conclusion without subsequent editing, cutting and pasting. Sitting, gathering thoughts and using a pen demand a unique degree of singular focus - it’s hard to dash off a letter using two thumbs standing on a crowded train. And writing a letter demands a degree of humility, honesty and willingness to make an above-and-beyond effort, to lay yourself bare through the act of writing without editing and with the possibility of graphological revelations. All these are attributes which make all communication better.

For these reasons we should, as Letters Live does, champion the importance of letters, passing on this enthusiasm to subsequent generations and teaching them the skills involved. After last week’s reports of tumbling profits, Royal Mail would undoubtedly welcome this. Whilst the boundaries between letters and other communications may blur and the latter assume many of the former’s functions, there will always be value and meaning in letters, a value that as communicators in business we will continue to consider.