The Letter: An Old-School Communications Format That Still Works

Bill and Melinda Gates
Bill and Melinda Gates

Never underestimate the power of a well-worded letter to communicate ideas. In an age of sound bites, acronyms and 140-character messages, the long form letter seems antiquated. But some organizations still use the letter to great effect to communicate complex and in-depth information with their audience and the media.

One prime example of the letter as an effective communications tool is the 2014 annual letter just released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation has released annual letters since 2009 that have updated stakeholders and the public about its efforts to curb poverty and disease in the world’s poorest nations. This year’s letter, however, focused not on the Foundation’s work, but on what Bill and Melinda Gates see as myths about the world’s poor that are impediments to wider efforts to aid the struggling nations of the world.

The annual Gates Foundation letters receive media coverage in part because of the reputation of Bill Gates. But the letters, and this year’s letter in particular, also get noticed because they deliver information that drives a story. They answer the “so what?” question that journalists ask themselves about every potential news item that crosses their desk.

Other great examples of letters as effective means of communication that have received media attention include BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s September 2013 email to employees on the company’s strategy; Groupon founder Andrew Mason’s candid farewell message to employees after being ousted in February 2013; and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ now famous April 2010 letter explaining why Adobe Flash just wasn’t going to cut it for the iPad.

In all these instances, the letter writer took the time to lay out the case in a candid fashion backed up by facts and historical data relevant to their readers. Follow these examples and you too will be able to effectively communicate complex ideas to your audience.

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