A Tiny Human Touch Goes a Long, Long Way

Tom Peters

Miss Manners I'm not. But I still say, "Send your thank-you notes. Now!"

I'm always surprised at how few thank-you notes I get. (I know, I know, there's an obvious explanation!) Several weeks ago, for example, I interrupted a tense writing schedule and flew from Vermont to California to do a seminar for a CEO to whom I owed a favor. To top it off, I quickly sifted through a mountain of data to come to grips with his unique, competitive conundrum.

Hey, I was paid a ton for my efforts. I'm hardly complaining. Well, actually I am. But all I really want is a thank-you note, just a couple of lines scrawled on a card—or a fish wrapper, for all I care—saying, "Tom, I know you busted your gut to do this. It worked out OK. Thanks. Harry." (And he needn't even include the modest "It worked out OK.")

By contrast, a fellow who attended a speech I gave to several hundred folks about three weeks ago just dropped me a line: "Nice job! Thought you might enjoy the attached." The "attached" was an article clipped from his local paper, about a little company that had dramatically speeded up delivery of its products—a topic I'd gotten worked up about during my speech.

You know what, I've re-read his scribble a couple of times, and I'll probably put it in my save box. "Nice job!" No big deal? Well, it is to me.

We wildly underestimate the power of the tiniest personal touch. And of all personal touches, I find the short, handwritten "nice job" note to have the highest impact. (It even seems to beat a call—something about the tangibility.)

A former boss (who's gone on to a highly successful career) religiously took about 15 minutes (max) at the end of each day at 5:30, 6:30, whenever, to jot a half-dozen paragraph-long notes to people who'd given him time during the day, or who'd made a provocative remark at some meeting. I remember him saying that he was dumbfounded by the number of recipients who subsequently thanked him for thanking them!

I wouldn't bet the farm on the scientific validity of what I'm about to say. But I think there's a strong correlation between the little thank-you notes I get and the busyness, fortune and fame of those who send them. That is, the busier, richer, and more famous they are, the more likely I am to get a note. There's one very renowned, very wealthy entrepreneur I've seen professionally several times a year for seven or eight years. I don't think he's ever failed to send a handwritten little (or not so little) note afterwards, within a couple of days for that matter.

Incidentally, I understand that George Bush is a master of this art. Pithy personal notes (pecked out on a typewriter) have been his stock in trade—and key to network building—for years. (Typewritten is OK, as long as it's an old typewriter, not a computer. And if you're an expert typist, make a typo or two, that's my advice.)

There are other twists. One pen pal scrawls brief handwritten responses on the backs of letters I send him. I love it, and have copied his habit. Again: It's hard to overestimate the number of people who have commented—favorably—on the personalization of the message.

Ellen Langer, a leading social psychologist, begins her book, Mindfulness, this way:

"One day, at a nursing home in Connecticut, elderly residents were each given a choice of houseplants to care for and were asked to make a number of small decisions about their daily routines. A year and a half later, not only were these people more cheerful, active, and alert than a similar group in the same institution who were not given these choices and responsibilities, but many more of them were still alive. In fact, less than half as many of the decision-making, plant-minding residents had died as had those in the other group. This experiment, with its startling results, began over 10 years of research into the powerful effects of what my colleagues and I came to call mindfulness and of its counterpart, the equally powerful but destructive state of mindlessness.

What does that have to do with a thank-you note? Everything. Langer offers a touching, dramatic tribute to the power of personal engagement—in this case, plant watering saves lives! The handwritten thank-you is a modest act of engagement. It won't likely save lives, but it just might boost your odds of becoming rich, famous, and adored. (Not to mention making you feel a lot better about yourself.)

Now look, I'm not implying that I would have given up my handsome seminar fee in return for a scrawled paragraph from that CEO. I am, however, telling you that fee-plus-note is more—a lot more—than fee-without-note.

It puzzles me that so few get it. Maybe they just don't care. Well, perhaps an entire column on the seemingly mundane topic of thank-you notes will get your attention. Try my old boss' end-of-the-day ritual for one month. I'll be amazed if you aren't amazed by the result.

Thanks for your attention!

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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