As a follow-up to the 1951 ‘No Idle Words’ booklet, comes this gem of a letter about writing letters. Its author was Charles Hill, a doctor turned broadcaster and politician who briefly held the office of Postmaster General.
Note also the lovely simplification of the royal coat of arms – just remove all the fussy heraldry from the middle, leaving only the supporters, crown and ribbon – and the brilliant phone number.
ST. MARTIN’S LE GRAND,
11th June, 1956
I am sending this letter to all in the Post Office whose job includes the writing of letters to the public. As a rule Post Office letters are very good. Sometimes they are so good as to make one feel proud. But it does happen that now and again Post Office letters come back to me because they have made members of the public very cross.
Unlike the customers of many private businesses, our customers cannot go elsewhere. Since we are a monopoly, our obligations to the public are all the greater.
A letter which is not clear and polite is just as serious a failure as is a wrong number or a misdelivered parcel. And it is bad in another way. We in the Post Office need the closest co-operation from the public if we are to provide efficient service. Unless the public think of us as a body of friendly, helpful and efficient men and women, we shall not get that co-operation. Bad letters are bad business – and we are in business.
Will you join me in and experiment? Will you re-read your own letters as though they had been sent to you? It can be a useful check to ask oneself as a private citizen what one would think of the writer. Would he seem to be a friendly, understanding, human being anxious to help, or a remote, cold, aloof bureaucrat? If you knew nothing about the Post Office and wanted to know only why you cannot get a telephone or why your letter or parcel went astray or was damaged, would the letter you have written seem clear and polite?
As ordinary individuals writing to a friend, we write simply and clearly. Or most of us do. Only when they pick up their pens in the office do some people sometimes write stiff, long-winded, and obscure letters.
Of course clarity is not all. Sometimes a letter is very clear – all too clear – but not very polite. But the people to whom we write are our customers. We cannot always do what our customers want; but we can, and should, always be polite. If the Post Office has made a mistake, we should apologise.
May I make some other suggestions? Write as nearly as you can as if you were talking to your correspondent. Keep your sentences short and use the simplest and most natural words. User your own words but avoid technical terms and abbreviations. Your correspondent may know little about the Post Office.
If your letter is to promise action of some kind, think out who will do what and say so. If you do not know, find out. If you cannot find out, the chances are that nobody is going to do anything and it’s high time somebody did.
If your letter is clear, polite, and as helpful as possible, you will be making a friend for the Post Office and doing a first-class job.
If for you this advice is unnecessary – as it is for the great majority of our Post Office colleagues – please forgive me for offering it. If not, please join me in a drive for better letters.