The Power of the Letter

What can so easily be forgotten in a world of instant access and response is the power of returning to old school communication methods to give your desires, inspirations and requests the right amount of personal touch. To those who are left to think of it as snail mail, I’m talking about a letter, the email of another generation, an anticipatory staple of the “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow” era of post delivery that some fear has gone the way of the mastodon.

Yes, I’m feeling lofty and poetic today, because I hope this post today revives the furry beast and all of its wonderful values, because the personal touch of the typed letter cannot be underestimated, perhaps more so now than ever.

Brad Egeland reminded me of this recently when he forwarded a memorable keepsake from his childhood: a signed letter from famed American college football coach Joe Paterno from 1979, complete with envelope. Today serving as a project management consultant and author in Las Vegas, Brad was a huge Penn State fan as an Iowa youngster in the mid to late-1970s, fueling a desire to write Paterno and express his appreciation of the Blue and White, as he told me in an email last month. The return letter from Paterno arrived when Brad’s appreciation of Paterno’s squad was at its zenith, albeit from nearly 1,000 miles away in the Great Plains. Though he said little in return, Paterno’s appreciation of Brad’s appreciation could not have been more evident.

The art of appreciating little things through letters is not lost, whether it comes to cover letters, fan mail, greeting cards, even as evidence of public unrest. Famed political talk show host/analyst Chris Matthews talks regularly about how a letter to a congressman is something tangible they can use to instill support for a cause in their represented district. George H.W. Bush was noted for devoting so much of his time to writing letters that those letters themselves would serve as a book in lieu of a memoir. Letters from other historical figures make for bestsellers, from Lincoln to Bellow to a self-described “nut” under a possible famous pseudonym.

Although these examples seem anywhere from political to mobilising to worrying, the physical presence of the Paterno letter and Bush’s propensity for writing them remain viable because of the consideration that goes into the letter writing process. It’s a tangile art form that can mobilise the job seeker, too, whether they are writing a cover letter to secure an interview or a thank you card after the interview. Once again, it’s all about that personal touch that goes the extra mile. My father – whose aversion to computers is so legendary in our circles that the only mouse he has ever touched was in a trap – backed up these sentiments once when I implored him to switch to email at risk of bringing on carpal tunnel syndrome.

“There really is nothing like the personal touch of that letter, Kid,” he told me. I haven’t been “Dan” to him for years, just “Kid”, and I still haven’t received an email from him, just the personal touch of a letter.

Here’s where I quit beating around the bush and mention the true power of the letter. The power I’ve felt from this personal touch rhetoric manifested itself in the form of a presentation in 20o2. Specifically, a careers development advisor from my university spoke to me and some other Senior Capstone students in our final year, about a little-known trick in the hiring process – the aforementioned Thank You card but,  for the secretary. In essence, non-stop thank yous for the little things that put the nervous interviewee at ease – offering & getting them a drink, engaging in short conversation, “did you find the place alright?” war stories, etc.

Jon, our advisor, came to the crux of what this could mean to your prospects:

“After she got the card I sent her,” he said in his own (possibly apocryphal) case, “she burst into her boss’ office and said, HIRE THIS PERSON!”

Provided you did everything else reasonably well (spoke to the power of you credentials and capabilities, provided solid verifiable references, came across as the right person for the position), what does this thoughtful gesture gain for a candidate?

  1. An in-house supporter;
  2. A close link to the person managing the fate of your hire;
  3. Recognition as someone who pays attention to the little things that can make big differences.

Not bad for a thoughtful gesture.


Image © Pink Sherbet Photography and used with permission.

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  1. Dan- Great post as always, and not just because you referenced me and used my letter from Paterno in it! Letter writing is such a lost art these days. The electronic age is nice – and fast – but we can’t lose track of that personal touch either with letter writing, face to face communication, etc. Thanks again.
    – Brad Egeland

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