Sales Letters That Sizzle

You've probably heard the expression “Don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” It was first coined by Elmer Wheeler, one of the greatest sales professionals of the 1940s. In the 1970s, another great steak salesman, Hershchell Gordon Lewis (he wrote direct-mail promotions for Omaha Steak Company), rejiggered the phrase to “Sales letters that sizzle.”

A sales letter doesn't have to be about steaks for this adage to be appropriate. Selling the sizzle — or the benefits — is one of the fundamental principles of any successful promotion.

The sales letter is the cornerstone of many direct-mail campaigns. Even postcards, self-mailers, catalogs, and elaborate 3-D packages often incorporate a letter or personal message of some kind. That's why mastering letter writing is a requirement for anyone writing in the direct marketing field.

A Timeless Format

The enduring power of the sales letter is astonishing. It has been used in advertising and sales since the early 1800s. And today, despite the proliferation of electronic communications, the old-fashioned sales letter is used more than ever, with hardly a change in its basic format. We may not receive that many personal letters from friends and family anymore, but people who want our business certainly haven't stopped writing to us!

In addition to what you would expect to see in a personal correspondence — a salutation (“Dear Jane”), body copy, a signature (“Sincerely yours”) — a sales letter can also utilize elements used in other marketing materials, such as headlines, reply forms, text boxes, starbursts, picture captions, and more. But be careful. A big mistake that some marketers make is getting carried away and creating a sales letter that looks more like a brochure than a personal communication.

How to Write It

Sales letters are the most personal and direct form of copywriting. Remember, it starts by calling the prospect or customer “Dear”! For your letter to be effective, the style and tone must be that of one person writing to another.

Always use a postscript (P.S.) in your sales letters. A P.S. stands out in a letter; it almost always gets read. So use a P.S. to highlight an additional benefit, sweeten the deal with a free gift or other give away, create urgency with a deadline, or reinforce a guarantee.

That's the best way to craft a letter: Create a picture of your ideal prospect in your mind, and then write directly to that person. Here is an example of a sales letter written by master copywriter Ivan Levison for one of his clients, a freelance graphic designer.

Profit-building art direction and design are just a stone's throw away

Dear <name>:

Who should design your next direct mail piece, advertisement, HTML, e-mail, or brochure?

You could choose a top-of-the-line, full-service graphics design firm. Sure they do nice work, but they also charge outrageous prices. (Hey. Someone has to pay for the espresso machine and the Creative Director's cool sunglasses!)

Let me suggest a far better alternative.


I'm a freelance graphic designer who's been producing direct mail, ads, brochures, and lots more for over twenty-five years. For clients like Lucent, Fujitsu, and Symbol Technologies.

My home office is located extremely close to your office and I have a knockout portfolio that I'd love to show you.

Give me a call at <phone number> and let's set up a meeting to discuss your next marketing piece. Or pick up the phone and just say hello. If I don't hear from you, I'll take the liberty of giving you a call on Thursday.

Isn't it time you discovered what Adobe, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Sybase have already learned?

That high-impact art direction and graphics design are just a stone's throw away.


Notice how the opening grabs your attention? This is one of the toughest parts of a letter: the beginning. It's also the most crucial. After all, if you don't capture the reader's interest within the first few sentences, then your letter will quickly be thrown in the trash with all the other junk mail.

Here are some great ideas that will help:

Ten Ways to Start a Sales Letter

  • State the free offer upfront. “Free Investment Calculator when you renew your subscription today.”

  • Make an announcement. “Our going out of business sale ends this Saturday.”

  • Tell a captivating story. “When she hung up the phone she knew she could never make a humiliating cold call again.”

  • Cite a fascinating fact or statistic. “Life expectancy in America is predicted to increase 15 years within the next decade. Are your retirement savings going to be enough?”

  • Flatter the reader. “Our research tells us you're one of the top teaching professors in the country.”

  • Write to the reader as a peer. “If you're like me, golfing is more than just a passion.”

  • A personal message from the president. “This is my personal invitation to join me for a breakthrough training program.”

  • Ask a question. “Are you struggling to attract enough clients?”

  • Identify with the reader. “If you're like me, you don't trust anything that even remotely smells like a get-rich-quite scheme.”

  • Solve a problem. “Here are 6 sure-fire ways to reach your sales quota this quarter.”

  • Highlight the benefit. “How to reduce your shipping costs by 22% or more.”

  • Make an invitation. “You're invited to attend a free teleclass.”

  • If you decide to use a headline at the top of your sales letter — and in most cases you should — it may work well as an attention grabber. However, you still need to make the opening sentences just as captivating.

    Letter Writing Tips from the Masters

    There are hundreds of tips for writing effective sales letters. Here are the ones that professional copywriters rely on most to get results.

  • Write to one person, not to a group.

  • Make it personal. Use the word “you,” even in business-to-business letters.

  • Put your strongest selling points up front within the first two or three paragraphs.

  • Use bullets when there are lots of key benefits to convey.

  • Avoid technical jargon unless you're sure the reader will understand it.

  • Don't try to warm up or tease the reader in the opening paragraphs.

  • Get to the key points of your sales message right away.

  • Keep paragraphs short. It's okay to use single-line or even single-word paragraphs. (As in the example sales letter from the graphic designer.)

  • Don't ask questions that require the reader to respond with a no.

  • You can't change a reader's mind with a sales letter. For example, you can't persuade someone to like golf. Instead, assume the reader is a golfing enthusiast when you pitch your “Swing Doctor” training video.

  • Keep the copy tight and easy-to-read. One rambling or convoluted paragraph can act like a roadblock that stops the reader from going any further.

  • Keep your letter focused on one overall sales message. Don't introduce other products, services, or even accessories.

  • These tips are in addition to the lessons you learned elsewhere in this book on effective copywriting, especially those strategies featured in Chapters 5 and 6.

    How do you end a letter? That's the easiest part. Always close a letter in the same way: with a strong, motivating call to action. If the sales letter is promoting a new car, you might say, “Call your local dealership within 7 days to reserve your test drive, and you'll receive a $500 discount certificate.” If your letter is trying to get magazine subscribers to renew, you might close with, “Renew today. This 65% discount offer won't last long.”

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