The Internet age gives us many options for how we choose to communicate and put ourselves out there. While it's critical to have a handle on electronic communications and social media, people should not forget the power of a good old-fashioned letter sent via snail mail. Very few people send personal letters these days (when was the last time you received one?), and that's a huge opportunity for those who want to get noticed. 

Letters are an ideal tool for making an introduction to a completely cold prospect, but it's important to note that the letter itself will almost never lead to an immediate response. They are merely a tool for softening for your first phone call. So yes, you still need to make cold calls to make it work. That’s just reality. 

I use letters regularly for my composing business and I've had measurable success in terms of both closed business and an expanded contact network to show for it. I'm continually refining my copy and my approach, but here a few lessons I've learned about what to include in an effective letter:

  • Keep it to one page
    You should be able to fit everything into one page. I personally try to keep the body of my letters at around 300 words or less. 

  • Let them know how you got their name
    People appreciate this and it helps prevent you from looking like a stalker. 

  • Personalize it as much as possible
    I recommend at least two or three sentences that show you know something about the prospect. I personally like to reference (and even compliment, if sincere) past work that they've done. You don't want this to look like a form letter. I also recommend hand signing the letter with a pen. 

  • Don't talk too much about yourself
    While you may have lots of great experience and background that you want to share, don't go overboard. One or two sentences - perhaps an elevator pitch - is plenty. Focus on your prospect’s needs and challenges! 
  • Don't ask for too much too soon
    Rather than asking for a gig, I like to ask the prospect for a five minute phone conversation, or if I'm going to be in their area, a fifteen minute personal meeting. I always frame it as an opportunity to "pick their brain" a bit about their work (because I actually do that!). However, I also make it clear that I'm interested in learning whether or not I could ever add value to one of their future projects. You don't want to completely couch your ultimate intentions. 
  • Acknowledge that they may not need your services
    This is a big one! While we might know that someone could benefit from what we do, they may have other options or other compelling reasons to not work with us. While making your ask for a meeting, a phone call etc, be sure to say something such as, "While I realize you may not need my services at this time, I would still welcome the chance to get acquainted."
  • Tell them you will follow up - and then follow up!
    Indicate to your prospect that you will be following up by phone. Give them a rough idea of the timeframe that they can expect that call. Provide your contact info as well and let them know they are free to call you first should they find your inquiry to be timely. 
  • Provide your website, contact info, social media addresses, etc.
    Almost everyone who considers talking to you will look you up online, perhaps starting with a Google search. The stronger your presence, the better off you will be. Consider every aspect of your online presence that you have control over and make it the best it can be. 

  • Proofread! 
    Aside from obvious things like using spellcheck and proper grammar/punctuation, send your letter over to a person you know with strong writing skills. You will get the benefit of someone who is reading your letter for the first time. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Bad writing can rule you out immediately before you ever get a chance to show what you can do.