17 Jul How not to write a resignation letter
Reading Boris Johnson’s resignation letter to Theresa May last week reminded me of that old quote attributed to the French polymath, Blaise Pascal: “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Or to put it in a language I understand better, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have time.”
Good letter writing is tough and it takes time. It’s also a bit of a dying art. Brevity isn’t always the answer, but a letter rarely needs to be longer than one or two pages at most. Any other information can be contained in supplementary documentation.
The primary purpose of any letter is to communicate a desire or proposition such as a thank you, an invitation or a request. In the case of resignation, its main purpose is to communicate that you are resigning and possibly some brief reasons for that decision. You may also choose to add some thanks for genuine reasons, or for the sake of diplomacy.
What was interesting about Boris Johnson’s letter was he chose to make a series of arguments he had already made to the Prime Minister. So why tell them again? He even spent one paragraph focusing on a particular niche reason for his beef with the EU – their resistance to change the size of lorry cab windows so they could see cyclists better and avoid accidents. At the time, the UK government was skeptical about this too and, in fact, the EU has since approved the change on all new lorries from next year. This was a complete irrelevance. As if lorry windows have anything to do with the complexity of the UK disentangling itself from the UK.
Doubtless part of Johnson’s tactics was to appeal to the press with phrases designed to hit the headlines. But this seems a short-term tactic. There were no substantive alternatives to what the government was proposing in the letter. He could have kept it to three or four short paragraphs and all on one page.
Letting your emotions get the better of you and putting them in writing is a dangerous road to take. Many well-known figures have got themselves into hot water with texts and tweets, and a letter is a longer form version with even more potential opportunities to dig holes. Johnson wrote a biography of Winston Churchill and he could well have heeded his advice: “The trouble with committing political suicide, you live to regret it.”
Here are three simple tips if you’re thinking of writing a resignation letter any time soon:
1. Keep it focused.You are resigning. That’s the main piece of information your reader needs to know.
2. Avoid attacking the person you are writing to.You may not like them or agree with what they are doing. The bottom line is you are leaving, so let it go and get on with your life.
3. Be very clear about what you are saying.People often interpret statements the way they want to. Keep them short and to the point to avoid misinterpretation.