Commentary

Business Card Elegance And Etiquette

Many people say business cards are becoming obsolete in the age of Google, LinkedIn, Facebook V-Cards and smart phones, though I think the opposite is true. Business cards represent the identity of organizations and individuals, and they create many first physical impressions.

The business-card exchange is one of the most important, galvanizing rituals between two or more people who are likely to engage in some greater social or business interaction. The business card not only is a tangible artifact that creates first impressions, it reinforces second and third impressions when a recipient refers to it for future reference or contact data entry.

Business cards perform basic utility, but they are also accessories that say a lot about you, signals that promote or detract from your company or personal brand. Whether you're a free agent or an employee, in good economic times or bad, business cards are like oxygen for your ability to do better business.

That's why I'd like to share a list of business-card best practices, emphasizing elegance, etiquette and practicality. If you adopt these best practices in your organization or free-agent life, I guarantee you'll experience more meaningful introductions and deeper ongoing relationships.

1. Material and surface. High-quality, tactile paper with rounded corners creates a friendlier and more substantial experience. Rounded corners, as the credit-card industry figured out decades ago, are less likely to catch or slice through people's skin. Yes, I've seen the latter happen.

2. Simple design. Adopt a simple, beautiful design. If you're not a great designer, hire one. Use light backgrounds, multiple colors, and a beautiful font, and ensure the type is large enough so people with poor eyesight can read it. Business cards are not items to get cheaply. Invest in them the same way you'd invest in a nice business suit.

3. Scanner-compatible. Make sure your business cards are compatible with card scanners. If you want to exist in someone's life, you'll have a greater chance of doing so if your contact information can easily be digitized in contact databases. It's still early, but I imagine cards will soon have smartphone scanner codes that direct card recipients to special landing pages on the Web, or automatically retrieve profile information from the cloud.

4. Personalization. Personalize your card -- with a photo, a quote, a graphic or something unique -- so it becomes an extension of you -- and, preferably, something to talk about. My friend Bruce Ertmann, formerly at Toyota, had a business card that read on the back: "Should the person reading my business card know of anyone not satisfied with our products or services, I will consider it a favor to be notified. Above all things, we wish to avoid having a dissatisfied customer." That got me talking. I was also impressed by a country-music talent agent whose business card included his signature written in 18-carat gold.

5. Minimalism. Balance personalization with minimalism. For example, omit extraneous information like industry affiliations, certifications and multiple academic degrees, unless they're really important and highly relevant to your card recipients. Use fewer words, not more, and that includes keeping job titles descriptive yet as short as possible. Don't include more contact information than your email, office, mobile and physical address. If people really need your fax number, they'll call you. If people want to follow you on Twitter or connect with you via Skype, they'll simply look you up online. Lots of white space is not only cleaner, but makes you stand out against the clutter and complexity that are so many other business cards.

6. Readily available. Keep business cards with you, always within reach. These days, with few exceptions, not having business cards makes you look unprepared and unprofessional. Simply, business cards won't benefit you if you don't have them.

7. Presentation. Keep your business cards neat. Worse than not having business cards is having poorly kept business cards. Do you think recipients like accepting crinkled, dirty cards that came out of the inner pocket of your old leather wallet or back pocket? No, that's disgusting and insulting. If you don't have a purse, murse ("man purse), briefcase or satchel with a dedicated, easily accessible business-card holder, you should invest in a high quality, dedicated card holder, perhaps made of polished metal or high-quality leather. The latter method is ideal because it improves your image in a James Bond kind of way, eliminates fumbling in bags, and accentuates the overall business-card exchange.

8. Grace. Present and accept business cards with grace. I've always been horrified by people who celebrate valuable introductions by flinging their cards across conference-room tables, often requiring fallen cards to be fished from the floor.

Conversely, I've long admired how the Japanese handle the business-card (or meishi) exchange. According to Wikipedia, the presenter holds the card out with both hands and introduces himself by affiliation, position, and name. The card is held at the bottom two corners using both hands, face up and turned so that it can be read by the person receiving the card. The receiver holds it at the top two corners using both hands, avoiding the placement of one's fingers over the name or other information. Upon receiving the card, one is expected to read the card over, noting name and rank, then thank the presenter with a bow. A receiver should not write on or place the card in a pocket; the proper procedure is to file the card at the rear of a leather case.

While most Westerners are not fluent in this ritual, adopting even a few of its elements will dramatically increase the quality of any business-card exchange.

Do you have any additional business-card tips that make a difference?

13 comments about "Business Card Elegance And Etiquette".
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  1. Ben Rothfeld from Acxiom Digital, February 12, 2010 at 2:09 p.m.

    Here's another tip I learned from my grandfather. Men should carry at least two business cards in the breast pocket of each suit jacket and coat that they own. That way, if you lose it, someone will find your cards in the pocket and realize that the item belongs to you, since you wouldn't take two of someone else's cards.

  2. Jason Krebs from Tenor/Google, February 12, 2010 at 2:24 p.m.

    [Looking at Paul Allen's business card]
    Patrick Bateman: Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God, it even has a watermark!

    David Van Patten: [re: business card] Good coloring.
    Patrick Bateman: That's 'Bone'.

  3. Rosanne Gain from Gain - Stovall, Inc., February 12, 2010 at 2:32 p.m.

    I love your article and will share it with clients and business associates. Another abuse in the art of business card distribution: whether you are at a Chamber business after hours, or an elegant dinner function with a quality speaker as part of the evening the following is a turn off. Do not walk up to a group of people you do not know and hand each of them your card as you introduce yourself. Instead, introduce yourself and work yourself into the conversation. Then, if it's appropriate, exchange cards with any of them if there appears to be connection.

  4. Deborah Rodney from The Next Level Marketing & Creative, February 12, 2010 at 2:34 p.m.

    Thank you for that terrific post. As an art director who designs business cards as part of a client's corporate identity program, I am in passionate agreement with everything you wrote. I just had this very discussion with a colleague of mine (another designer) in regards to having received a shoddy Vista-print business card from a social media guru who gave a talk I attended recently and I was horrified. He may be a bona fide expert in online marketing but his offline branding left a lot to be desired. With your permission I am going to re-purpose and reference your post in my own blog and share it with my social media connections.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 12, 2010 at 2:35 p.m.

    Manners, consideration and respect. Business cards are the least expensive part of company, yet present the best reminder when follow ups proceed. A light colored card presents an opportunity for the accepter to make notes about your conversation, too. Thank you, Max.

  6. Lisbeth Kramer from Identities, February 12, 2010 at 2:39 p.m.

    Max

    SO LOVE this on so many levels from your tasteful directive regarding visual aesthetics to the human touch that is still an essential ingredient to building relationships that have value....this is truly the way in my mind still...to CLICK into connection....

  7. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, February 12, 2010 at 4:47 p.m.

    Every bit as relevant as the wristwatch, cigarette box, fountain pen, and the checkbook.

  8. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, February 12, 2010 at 5:45 p.m.

    Or, you could take the advice of this guy...(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YBxeDN4tbk)

    http://www.quisenblog.com

  9. David Shor from Prove, February 13, 2010 at 3:34 a.m.

    I hate glossy business cards you can't write on.

    Check out the .TEL concept and how .TEL makes business cards a WHOLE lot simpler--including using QR codes on the card. Cool!

  10. Michael Senno from New York University, February 13, 2010 at 1 p.m.

    Max, I hate to say this, but you are out-dated. Many people don't even carry business cards anymore, and few take note of what they look like.

    Further, most organizations will not only the personalization you recommend to try to make the card an extension of yourself. It's not realistic outside of your entrepeneurial, start-up world.

  11. Christopher Korody from ckwrites.com, February 13, 2010 at 10:07 p.m.

    Absolutely lovely and on point.

    Manners, grace and style are among the most powerful elements of a first impression.

    Yes it is true that in certain circles a great deal of this has been lost in the haste to worship the bottom line or the latest techno bauble. It is also true that a vast majority of people never knew or were capable of this in the first place.

    Their loss. The goal is to be remembered. This achieves that goal (so does a fountain pen and a wristwatch).

    Besides, I enjoy being an anachronism and i relate particularly well to others who enjoy it too.

    BTW Ben - I love grandpa's tip - great stuff - can't do that with a Vcard.

    ckwrites

  12. Merri lee Barton from BartonMedia, February 15, 2010 at 5:10 p.m.

    Thanks for the reminder that some good, old-fashioned protocol still has it's place. In this exciting age of cutting edge social interaction, some things need to stay the same. Business cards are one of those things. Looking people in the eye is another!

  13. Eileen Lichtenfeld, February 15, 2010 at 9:44 p.m.

    The gentleman from NYU who says business cards are outdated is either way ahead of his time or not traveling in the real business world. While some people do stop and enter you straight into their smartphone - the vast majority in take the card - (and hopefully write a note on it.) As noted above - using a quality cardstock and non-glossy finish along with sufficient white space make it a much better tool.

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