What Works in Letters to Elected Officials

By Kathryn Arnett
I have written many letters to elected representatives in my life. But while interning at the California State Capitol one summer, I had the chance to be on the other side reading those letters. Seeing the hundreds of emails and mailed letters that come to a State Senator on any given day, I learned what kinds of letters are most effective and influence representatives most. 

When I was interning at the Capitol, there was talk that the education budget would get a major overhaul—and potentially receive much more funding than in recent years. So, we saw a lot of letters come in asking the legislature to invest more in education. Many came in bulk, and those I do not remember. The letters that stood out to me, and to my boss and the staff, were personalized. 

I remember one letter in particular from a concerned mother with a son in elementary school in Los Angeles. She shared the story of how cuts to the budget had affected her and her child. He was less engaged in school because classes like Physical Education had been cut. When she walked through his school she saw broken and deteriorating facilities, and wished her child could have something better. She asked for an investment in schools because she cared about her son’s education, and knew more funding would help. 

This woman used a basic form letter for the bulk of her message, but she also took the time to tell her story—and it made a world of difference. 
You don’t have to write a three-part saga to create an effective letter. Here are three easy things you can do to make sure your message packs the most punch: 

1. Demonstrate your knowledge. Write a brief summary of the topic in your own words, so your representative sees you understand the issue. If you are supporting a bill, what does the bill do? If you want to see your representative create new legislation, what do you know about the topic? 
2. Share your story. This is the most important part! Describe how the topic has affected you personally, and why it matters to you. Use real-life examples and make it into a story. 
3. Make your case. End your letter by re-stating what exact action(s) you would like your representative to take, and why it is important and necessary. Be sure to be respectful and thank them for considering your views.  

Working at the Capitol, I learned that bulk messages are difficult to assess, because you can’t tell if each person who signs truly understands or supports the topic. The letters with some personalization stand out and carry much more weight. The next time you go to sign a letter from a campaign you support, consider adding a personal message. It’s worth the effort to make your voice heard!