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How to write a good thank-you letter

“Writing effective thank-you letters can be difficult”

“The do’s and don’ts of saying thank you”

“That simple magic word: Thanks”

“Write with your reader’s perspective in mind”


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Writing effective thank-you letters
can be difficult

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Has this ever happened to you?


You unexpectedly find yourself with a few moments of free time – say five minutes until your next meeting. You’ve already checked your morning e-mail messages. For the moment the phone isn’t ringing. So, looking for a task you can complete quickly, you reach for your things-to-do pile.


There you find a note about a thank-you letter that needs to be written. Good, you think. I can whip that off in two minutes, then get to my meeting on time.


Ten minutes later you’re still tinkering with the same three sentences, you’re not satisfied with what you have written, and you’re late for your meeting.


Who would have thought that writing a simple thank-you letter would be so difficult?


If you have experienced something like this, you are one of countless people to discover the thank-you-letter-writer’s dilemma: A simple “thank you” can sound insincere if it’s too brief, and a longer letter can sound equally insincere if it’s padded with empty-sounding generalities.


So, how do you write a thank-you letter that sounds like you really mean it in less than five minutes?


Try following this four-part format:


1. Begin with a thank you. A straightforward “Thank you very much for . . .” or “I am writing to express my sincere appreciation for . . . “ works fine. When you want to underscore your role as representative of a group or organization, “On behalf of . . .” works well. For a more creative approach, open with an indirect compliment, such as “Something good always happens whenever you’re in town.”


2. Refer specifically to what the reader has done for you.  The key to making your reader feel genuinely appreciated is to go beyond generalities and offer specific detail. When thanking a guest speaker, for example, rather than simply write “Your presentation was truly first rate,” explain what it was about the presentation you found valuable: “Your comments on quality control were especially useful. In fact, one of our team leaders has distributed a summary of your three-step approach.”


3. Link the reader’s contribution to a broader mission or goal. An effective way to expand your letter without sounding insincere (“Your presentation was the best I’ve ever heard”) is to acknowledge the importance of the reader’s contribution in a broader context (“Your three-step approach will help us prepare for our annual audit”).


4. Conclude with “Thanks again” and a goodwill message. Repeat your appreciation for your reader’s contribution, and stress the importance of your relationship. This is your opportunity to say, in effect, “I appreciate your gifts and talents, and I value our relationship.”


Now, if getting started is the problem, keep these three points in mind:


1. Write your letter soon after the event. As time passes – and as your writing assignment sinks inexorably to the bottom of your things-to-do pile – your feeling of gratitude will fade. Your genuine desire to express appreciation will evolve into resentment at having to perform a bothersome task. The sooner you write, the easier the writing will be.


2. Think about your reader, not yourself. Try to put out of your mind any negative feelings you may associate with the act of writing (anxiety, stress, impatience). Instead, concentrate on the good feelings your letter will engender in your reader (recognition, appreciation, satisfaction).


3. When disappointed with the gift, emphasize the thoughtfulness of the giver. Writing a thank-you letter is especially challenging when the gift isn’t to your liking or the contribution doesn’t meet your expectations. In those situations, find something positive to say about the contribution, and thank the reader for his or her generosity, thoughtfulness, or time.



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The do’s and don’ts of saying thank you

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Work-related thank-you letters are written for two main reasons: because it’s the right thing to do, and because we want something else from the person we’re thanking.


Guess which reason seems to get more attention in reference books and on the Internet. I’m afraid the answer doesn’t say much about our sense of manners.


If you browse a collection of books on business and managerial writing, you’ll find that the great majority don’t even address the topic.


And if you search “thank-you letters” on the Internet, you’ll find that the most frequently visited sites offer advice on how to thank prospective employers for interviews. You’ll have to search a while longer to find anything about expressing appreciation as a matter of good business etiquette.


To help address this apparent cultural oversight, I offer the following do’s and don’ts for writing on-the-job thank-you letters:




1. Send thank-you letters for interviews, referrals, job search assistance, patronage, orders, advice, favors, hospitality, lunches, and gifts. When someone does something nice for you, tell them you appreciate it.


2. Acknowledge a gift when the sender has no other way of knowing you received it. This might even involve sending a thank-you note for a thank-you gift.


3. Write as soon as possible. Not only does a timely thank-you seem more sincere than a belated one, but it’s the easier to write.


4. Send a handwritten note as a personal expression of gratitude. Because they are less common these days, handwritten notes convey special warmth.


5. Emphasize qualities such as the generosity or thoughtfulness of the giver if the gift is disappointing. Even a presenter who stinks the place up deserves a thank-you.


6. Refer specifically to the gift or contribution. A well-written letter of appreciation can be sent to only one person.


7. Make a more general reference. Note how the gift or contribution is significant to your career, business, professional goals, or organizational mission.


8. Conclude with a goodwill statement, perhaps reiterating your appreciation. Remember: Building or reaffirming relationship is your primary objective.




1. Send thank-you letters that include requests for additional information or assistance. Don’t let convenience interfere with sincerity.


2. Send thank-you notes by e-mail unless the gift is routine or unless immediacy is a primary concern. As Rosalie Maggio observes in How to Say It, “The point of a thank-you note is that it is personal. E-mail has many virtues, but graciousness and formality are not among them.”


3. Acknowledge a thank-you gift that is presented to you in person unless it’s of unusually high value. Saying thank you at the moment generally is sufficient.


4. Use the phrase “thank you in advance” in your complimentary close. It’s standard practice to encourage readers to take a desired action by thanking them before they’ve actually done it, but “in advance” can sound presumptuous.


Good manners are important both in our personal lives and in business. There are, however, limits as to how far you should go in expressing your appreciation. Maggio makes this point when she quotes the British novelist Evelyn Waugh, who once described an acquaintance in this way:


“His courtesy was somewhat extravagant. He would write and thank people who wrote to thank him for wedding presents, and when he encountered anyone as punctilious as himself the correspondence ended only with death.” 



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That simple magic word: Thanks

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

How can I thank you? Let me count the ways.


I could . . . well, I could send you an e-mail or a text message. That would be quick and easy. Timely, too. But an e-mail or text doesn’t require much effort on my part. You might not think me sufficiently grateful.


I could . . . let’s see. I could reach into the depth and breadth and height of my soul and commit my thoughts to paper. Give you the old razzle-dazzle, the old hocus-pocus, a show that was so splendiferous it would make you vociferous.


I could write a letter that would make me a star, at least in your eyes, at least for the moment. I could put old griefs behind us with a few kind words, a little TLC.


I could think of you and what you had done for me, not contrive to turn my thank-you into an opportunity to advance my own interests. I could be genuine and sincere.


I could, for instance,


Make a specific reference to what you had done, maybe quote something you had said or explain in detail the particular benefits of your contribution – anything to move my letter beyond a generic “thank you very much I really, really mean it” kind of thing.


Create a broader context by linking your contribution to an overriding goal or mission so that you would feel part of a larger effort, a valued member of an important group or community.


Offer to do something in return, anything really, big or small, that demonstrated that, like you, I could be thoughtful and generous with my time.


Include a personal note about something we have in common, maybe refer to the experience that brought us together or mention one of your concerns or worries so that you would know I had paid attention to the things that were on your mind.


Conclude with a goodwill statement that in some ways affirmed and reinforced our relationship – something that said, “We have more good times ahead.”


I could, on the other hand, give you the old hocus-pocus, the flimflam flummox, a three-ring circus that would stun and stagger you. I could


Let more than one week pass before writing and sending my letter so that you would think the only reason I was bothering at all was to fulfill a social obligation.


Include a request for additional assistance, thereby saving me the trouble of a second communication.


Be self-congratulatory, placing greater emphasis on what a fine job I was doing with whatever it was you did to help me accomplish my goal. What exactly did you do, anyway?


Say “thank you in advance” in my complimentary close to a request letter, thus serving you notice that if you were more important I would take the time to thank you later but, being who you are, I’m finished with you now.


Whether my effort brought smiles or tears to your eyes, whether you thought it had rhyme or reason, was original or some odd translation from the Portuguese, I hope you would accept it in the spirit in which it was intended.


Seminars & email courses

Write with your reader’s perspective in mind

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

“Happy holidays,” my daughter’s professor wrote to her over break. “Here are your assignments for next term.”


Home for the holidays, my daughter read the message and sighed. “Gee, I wish my professor had sent two separate messages,” she said. “First, happy holidays. Then, here are your assignments for next term.”


She was recuperating from having worked so hard during her first semester of graduate school, and her reaction was understandable. The first thing she wanted to hear from her boss was thanks for your hard work. Then she would have been ready for her next assignment.


In fairness, her professor’s intent was commendable. She was writing to give her students some lead time before their next assignment was due. Her standard “happy holidays” opening was an appropriate goodwill greeting. It wasn’t her tone that was wrong; it was her communication strategy.


Let’s review some basic formulas.


A standard message has three components: purpose, background, proposed action. Routinely added are two components: goodwill openings and goodwill closings. As any good manager or customer relations expert will tell you, you should think of every message you send (or nearly every message) as an opportunity to create goodwill in your opening and affirm relationship in your closing.


My daughter’s professor succeeded with her opening but nevertheless struck a wrong note. Here’s how you can avoid making that error yourself.


After you have thought through your three-step message and you are clear about your purpose, background, and proposed action, and after you have written your goodwill opening (in this case, “Happy holidays”), pause. Ask yourself: What is my reader thinking?


Not what do I want to accomplish, but given the pace and rhythm and stress of workflow, or the highs and lows in my customer-provider relationship, what does my reader want or need to hear from me? It’s not just a question of results; it’s also a question of relationship.


My daughter needed to know her upcoming assignments. But first she needed to hear affirmation for a job well done.


There’s no harm in prefacing a “here’s what I need you to do for me” communication with a polite “thank you” or “I hope you’re doing well” opening. The error occurs when the writer fails to recognize that the reader was expecting full-throated recognition.


Here’s an example of the error: “Thanks for your wonderful work in organizing our holiday party. It was a huge success. By the way, on your way in tomorrow, would you mind replenishing our coffee supply? I appreciate how I can always count on you to handle details.”


Pausing after writing the “thank you” part might have led the writer to conclude that the reader needed recognition, with no strings attached. The request to pick up coffee could readily have been sent in a subsequent message.


So, before you send your next message, pause to check your communication strategy. Ask not what you need from your reader; ask what your reader needs from you.




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