In writing up today’s post on the 7 letters your should write before you turn 70, I realized that the congratulatory note was the only type we hadn’t offered a fuller guide on previously, and that needed one. So let’s remedy that.
Writing a note of congratulations isn’t too complicated, but this quick primer will offer a few basics tips and reminders to ensure yours are done well and received warmly.
When to Send
Everyone likes to be noticed and recognized for their accomplishments. So there’s really no bad reason to send someone a congratulatory note. They can strengthen both personal and professional relationships, and there are a wide variety of occasions when they’re appropriate. Here’s just a sampling:
- Personal: Weddings, engagements, birth/adoption of child, graduations, religious rites (bah mitzvah, confirmation, baptism, etc.), winning a sports competition/election, making it onto a team, college acceptance, new home
- Professional: Promotion, award, retirement, new title, landing new contract or client, starting a new business
The big thing with sending a note of congratulations is to do it as soon as possible. You don’t want to congratulate someone on their new baby when the kid’s about to turn one. A well-timed congratulations gives a boost to the excitement someone is already feeling; a belated one is a mismatch with the person’s circumstances and thus falls flat.
Who to Send To
Oftentimes we think of congratulations as something the older/more powerful offer to those “below” them, e.g., the boss congratulating his subordinate for a job well done, or a parent congratulating their child for graduating.
But congratulations can go up and down the social ladder. A child can write to celebrate their parents’ wedding anniversary; an employee can congratulate their manager on their promotion.
Congratulations is something you should also express to your rivals. I feel like we’ve lost the idea of having a competitor you simultaneously want to excel, but also greatly respect and admire. Be humble enough to be able to recognize the accomplishments of your rivals – and then let those accomplishments inspire you to rise higher too!
How to Structure
Here are some general guidelines on how to word a letter of congratulations, with examples of each piece:
- Dear Tyler
2. Express your congratulations early on and share how you heard the news of their accomplishment/milestone, if appropriate/applicable.
- Your mom just called to tell me you’ve joined the Marines and will be heading off to boot camp soon. Congratulations on this big decision!
3. If appropriate, reference how far the person has come to get to this point. If the obstacles in one’s past were self-inflicted and/or embarrassing, it’s best to skip this step, and/or refer to it obliquely. For example, don’t say, “It’s hard to believe that just two years ago you were a coked-out junkie.”
- When your father died five years ago, I know how tough it was for you.
4. Reflect on the person’s positive attributes that have made this milestone/accomplishment possible, and will continue to bring them success in their new endeavor.
- I was so impressed then with how quickly and willingly you took on the mantle of “man of the household” and supported your mom and brothers and sisters. You showed a tremendous amount of maturity and emotional fortitude, and I know those qualities will serve you well as a Marine.
5. Express your confidence and faith in them, as well as your support.
- I know you have what it takes to make it through boot camp and become a successful Marine. I’ll be thinking and praying for you as you tackle this challenge and can’t wait to see you at graduation.
6. Reiterate your congratulations.
- Congratulations again on this tremendous decision. Your Aunt Vickie and I are very proud of you. Your dad would have been bursting with pride too.
- With Love, Uncle Rick
A Few Things to Avoid:
Passive aggressive/bitterness — even if you’re “joking.”
- Congrats on the promotion! One of these days I’ll be lucky enough to get out of this cubicle too.
Expressing surprise. You don’t want it to seem like you’re shocked they were able to achieve the accomplishment.
- Given how selective the program is, it’s amazing you got picked!
Excessive flattery. No need to go overboard with the praise; make everything you say sincere.
- I just heard your book was accepted for publication! Congrats! Your novel puts everything Hemingway wrote to shame and will surely win a Pulitzer.
Comparing their accomplishment to one of yours. This is their time to shine.
- Congratulations on winning the state championship. When I played, if Coach woulda put me in fourth quarter, we would’ve been state champions. No doubt. No doubt in my mind.
As with all correspondence, emailing a note of congratulations is okay in some circumstances (the person’s milestone or achievement was of the small and casual variety), and is better than doing nothing. But handwrite them whenever possible. Pen and paper convey the weight and sincerity of your words better than anything else. So grab yourself some nice, manly stationery, and start saluting your friends and loved one’s accomplishments!