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The Power of a Personal Note

I was talking to a friend who is a fourth-year medical student applying for residency programs. She told me about the programs she is considering and said she was very impressed with Tulane.

When I asked what impressed her about Tulane (a medical center affiliated with Tulane University in New Orleans), I learned that it was a personal note! My friend said something like this:

"The director followed up on my interview by sending me a personal, handwritten note. Usually all the communication is by email. From his personal note, I think he must be very interested in the residents."

No doubt the residency programs at Tulane have other strong points, but my friend didn't mention any of them. She mentioned receiving a personal note.

When is the last time you handwrote a note? Can you think of an opportunity to send one soon?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “The Power of a Personal Note”

  • The personal note has become increasingly rare, Lynn, and that’s a big reason why it’s so powerful. It implies sincerity and certainly EFFORT.

    Dashing off a quick e-mail is almost effortless. To sit and hand write a letter, address an envelope, assemble the two, apply the stamp and deliver to a mailbox is a virtual manufacturing process these days.

    I think well conceived surface mail, in general, carries more power than it used to. Notice how the volume of so-called junk mail has diminished because marketers have turned like a herd to e-mail. That means surface mail will likely get more attention than was possible years ago.

    It often pays to take contrarian positions. While everyone else is trying to break through the ocean of e-mail transmitted every day, those who use surface mail — the road less traveled — will probably grab more attention.

  • I’m a big believer in the power of a personal note. My wife interviewed for a new IT job last summer. When I asked her if she had written her interviewer a thank you note, she told me, “Well, he’s in IT, I’m in IT–we’re both technology kind of people, so I’ll just shoot him an email.” She begrudgingly succumbed to my persuasion and sent a handwritten thank you note instead.

    She got the job.

  • Mike, I agree with you about the manufacturing process involved in sending a handwritten message. Although I have cards, stamps, a pen, and my contact list within reach at my desk, I probably write 250+ emails to every handwritten note because the email process is automatic.

    But by its very ease of creation, the emailed message can rarely impress the way the handwritten message can.

  • JJB, congratulations to your wife on getting the job. I wonder how many other candidates sent a note–or even an email.

    Good advice!

  • Lynn,

    When I was thinking about where to go for graduate school, I visited Cornell and was introduced to a very distinguished professor whom I was hoping to study with.

    Within a week, a handwritten note arrived from him saying how pleased he was to have met me and he hoped I would choose their program.

    I had already decided to attend Cornell, but if I hadn’t, this note would undoubtedly have swayed me to choose Cornell over two other schools that had higher reputations.

    This happened some decades back, and the impact of a personal note certainly has gone up since then.

    Any school or workplace that uses this technique has a marketplace advantage that flies under the radar. Competitors won’t normally know why they’re losing out!

    Marcia Yudkin

  • Hi, Marcia. Thanks for mentioning the handwritten note as a technique and a competitive advantage. That language sends a message that the words “thoughtful” and “appropriate” don’t communicate.

  • The personal note. Easy to do, but easy not to do. Countless times I’ve seen such a simple gesture pay big dividends.

    Just the other day I received card from someone I had participated in a project they were working on. It was a simple thank you card (along with a little gift card) — nothing to fancy, but the next time I find myself looking for the type of service this person offers (for myself or a referral for someone else) you better believe they’re going to be high at the top of the list for that business.

    Thanks for sharing this post and the reminder 🙂


  • This is one of the most inexpensive and powerful tools a leader has—I sent a handwritten card on one or two qualities I observed in my staff to their significant others (parents, grandparents, etc). Three people made a point of talking to me about how important and special that made them feel and one of them nearly cried while he told me. There is nothing more powerful than recognition.

    Incidentally, I’ve saved all the thank-you notes I’ve received from patients. Not only does it comfort me on those Sisyphean days, it is an opportunity to show tangible customer service skills to future employers.

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