Commentary

Handwritten Letters Work BECAUSE Digital Communications Don't

People obsess over the latest flavors and innovations in digital communication and interactivity. I'm talking about everything from new email technologies to social networking tools, even new hybrid interaction platforms like Wave. Many of these innovations are exciting and have permanently earned a place in our lives. Their growing popularity drives volume and efficiency in one-to-one communications.

However, the growing volume of communications in digital form also drives attention deficit, dehumanization and diminishing returns. It's a tragedy of the commons when digital innovations, celebrated for their improvement on our interpersonal communications, have the opposite effect.

That's why recently I've been highly conscious of handwritten letters. Sure, they've been around forever, and have always been important. Indeed, handwriting was the only form of recorded text for the vast majority of human history. Yet the surge in digital communications has created a relative explosion in the impact a handwritten letter can have, especially if it's well-written.

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Here are a few examples of recent handwritten letters in my life:

  1. An ambitious sales colleague at my company recently annoyed a prospective customer with one too many phone calls. The prospect requested to never be called again -- good intentions perceived the wrong way. My colleague sent a handwritten apology letter and promised never to call again. A few days later, that prospect called my colleague back and said, "You're a good guy and your product rocks, so please sign me up immediately."
  2. A candidate for a senior business development role at our company had an extraordinary interview with me and my team. He sent a personal, passionate and detailed letter outlining key points of our private discussion. As a result, my view of him switched from highly favorable to "we have to get him." I want him to impact potential customers the way he did me.
  3. I recently met with a famous media executive who wanted my feedback on a potential start-up investment. I think he offered more value in the meeting versus me. Regardless, he thanked me the next day via a handwritten letter which summarized the most valuable feedback. He also sent one of his favorite books on one of my favorite topics: business culture and leadership. He asked me to read it so we could meet again and discuss it. I didn't expect any of that, yet it had a profound impact.

What is it about handwritten letters? Before they're even opened up or read, handwritten letters tend to embody 11 key attributes:

  • Tactile
  • Permanent
  • Convincing
  • Purposeful
  • Individualized
  • Handmade
  • Thoughtful
  • Emo tional
  • Engaging
  • Reflective
  • Humble

Then mix in context, purpose, author and content. If well-written, a handwritten letter can deliver extraordinary impact.

The great thing about handwritten letters is they're resource-intensive and impossible to mass-produce. Therefore, an uncontrollable abundance will never become their demise.

I wonder what pre-Internet people would think of this resurrection.

19 comments about "Handwritten Letters Work BECAUSE Digital Communications Don't".
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  1. Scott Brinker from ion interactive, inc., October 30, 2009 at 1:56 p.m.

    Excellent points! A great reminder that whatever the "box" of digital marketing seems to be at any given point, there's tremendous value to thinking out of it as well!

  2. Kevin Lee from Didit, October 30, 2009 at 1:56 p.m.

    I just wish my penmanship (which was always bad and has further atrophied) would add a positive impact to a handwritten letter. currently it wouldn't. Perhaps I should go back to grade school.

    Usually I have to settle for a personalized letter response using snail mail. At least my assistant can hand-address the envelope assuring delivery.

  3. Mike Loomis from Eastco Worldwide, October 30, 2009 at 1:59 p.m.

    Please excuse this "digital" response. Great and timely point. "Standing out" is key... The medium can follow.

  4. Roy Perry from Greater Media Philadelphia, October 30, 2009 at 2:09 p.m.

    Use to be if you wanted someone's attention you bumped UP the tech ladder: "Oooh, a fax!" "Wow, an email!" It was special, but thru overuse became first invisible, then toxic. Now if you want attention you bump DOWN. "I only got a LETTER today!" Carrying this to its logical conclusion I'm sure many modern workers would be dumbstruck how much you can accomplish talking to someone face to face.

  5. Darryl Gehly from Aegis Media, October 30, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    Well stated, Max. These days, few things get more attention than a personal, heartfelt, handwritten letter.

  6. Joshua Chasin from VideoAmp, October 30, 2009 at 2:13 p.m.

    I was going to say "you're right." But I've decided instead to send you a telegram.

  7. Linda Armas from Residential Care Placement Specialists, October 30, 2009 at 2:25 p.m.

    When I am working with a new client, I make a point to find out their preferred means and level of communication and will make every effort to adjust my future communications to their preference. It may take a little more time and effort to know who prefers email/fax/snail mail, but I believe the personal touch pays off. A handwritten thank you note is always appreciated.

  8. Deborah Rodney from The Next Level Marketing & Creative, October 30, 2009 at 2:37 p.m.

    Couldn't agree with you more. The same goes for cards. I received a handwritten thank you note the other day after sending a referral to a colleague and the thoughtfulness of that gesture stayed with me all day.

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 30, 2009 at 3:12 p.m.

    Tip to those with handwriting problems: Go slower. And yes, you can retrain/rehab yourself.

  10. Rosanne Gain from Gain - Stovall, Inc., October 30, 2009 at 3:13 p.m.

    I was just talking about this to someone last night, we both agreed that for most it is a lost art. For that very reason, the hand written note stands out. We use hand written notes in our business and receive feedback that it is appreciated. I would add one of the following words to your list of attributes: sincere or genuine.

  11. Kim Marquette from Dayspring, October 30, 2009 at 5:46 p.m.

    My business is based on the power of the written word. With all the digital communications, the impact of 'mail' is on the rise. Handwritten letters or handwritten notes in a greeting card, certainly sets one apart and tells the reciever that they are worth the time and effort!

  12. Hugh Simpson from WOW! Presentation, October 30, 2009 at 7:09 p.m.

    AMEN! May be they should also be hand delivered!

  13. Linda Lorelle from Lorelle Media, LLC, October 31, 2009 at 11:57 a.m.

    Hallelujah! I couldn't agree more. Every year we provide our scholarship recipients with personalized stationery and require that they write thank you notes to the donor who sponsored their scholarship. A personal touch goes a long way in this increasingly impersonal world...

  14. Elizabeth Cottrell from Riverwood Technologies, November 1, 2009 at 1:11 a.m.

    This is so well articulated and so important, Max. I feel so passionately about this topic that I started a Facebook Group called Revive the art of personal note writing! (Yes, the irony did not escape me). I'd love to have you and your readers join us: http://bit.ly/rJq9h.

  15. Fj Rich from EPI, November 2, 2009 at 8:59 a.m.

    I wonder over this too. As a letter writer w/ extraordinary stories of its impact I wonder if the shared view is popular enough to change habits.

  16. Patricia Philbin from Architect of Communication, November 2, 2009 at 11:36 a.m.

    This article rings true for me. For years, my primary form of correspondence has been email. Then I'd write something like a Christmas card and it looked embarrassingly sloppy. Moving to France, where people are digitally-minded yet still like to read and handle pieces of paper, I've learned how to write again. I send handwritten thank you notes to clients at the conclusion of a job and people like it. The only thing I still have to work on is to write smaller -- many French people write in a really small and concise way. I still have those expansive American loops and curls from grade school!

  17. Elizabeth Cottrell from Riverwood Technologies, November 4, 2009 at 10:31 p.m.

    Wonderful post, and I'll take these tips back to the community foundation on whose board I serve.

    I feel so passionately about this topic that I started a Facebook Group called Revive the art of personal note writing! (Yes, the irony of doing this on Facebook did not escape me). I'd love to have you and your readers join us: http://bit.ly/rJq9h

  18. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields, November 17, 2009 at 11:25 p.m.

    Max I liked this article so much that I posted it on a
    couple of blog sites. Then I wrote a couple of letters
    just to see if I could still, you know, do it. Thank You.

  19. Andrew Mintz from SalesQuill.com, December 22, 2009 at 11:04 a.m.

    There's a new handwriting service available for those who don't have the penmanship, stationery or stamps at hand. Write your note on line, pick a penmanship style, hit submit and a handwritten note is penned in Portland, Maine. The company url is http://bit.ly/5IjWKA.

    Enjoy writing again.

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