An argument for snail mail

I came of age in an era of snail mail, so the files held copies of letters I had sent out and ones I received in return. These personal messages revealed two important insights for me.

When I left my last corporate job, I had 12 years of files to clean out. It was really more like 30 years' worth, as it included things I had squirreled away from every job I ever had, going back to college internships.

There were dog-eared folders stuffed with memos, letters, photographs, and news clippings. There were headshots from each promotion or new job. I could also trace the trajectory of my career through the steady regression of my hairline.

Before email and smartphones, we kept hard copies of everything, which reminded me of a press conference I staged in the early '80s to announce the development of something known as a CD-ROM.

"What does it do?" I asked my client.

"It allows you to store documents on a CD," he explained. "You can put a whole encyclopedia on a single disc."

"Why would you want to do that?" I responded.

We heralded the product as the advent of the paperless office. And indeed it was, though it took about 20 years for people to stop keeping files of documents.

So as I sorted through my drawers, I discovered that most of the stuff I kept was of no real value: VHS tapes of publicity campaigns, press kits from product launches, and congratulatory internal memos for the completion of projects.

However, some of the old files held little nuggets that gave me glimpses into who I was and how I had managed my career.

I came of age in an era of snail mail, so the files held copies of letters I had sent out and ones I received in return. These personal messages revealed two important insights for me.

First, I clearly had been diligent about keeping in touch and reaching out to people, and this was long before anyone coined the term networking.

Second, there were a surprising number of older, influential, and powerful people who had been remarkably kind to me and who helped me build my career.

When something important happened to me in those days, such as getting a new job or publishing an article, I would send a personal letter or note to dozens of people. And they would mail one back to me - imagine that.

Today, if I have personal news, I simply post it on social media and the slow arduous process of letter-writing seems ludicrous by comparison. But it also seems quite intimate.

There is something powerful about a hard-copy letter that someone took the time to write, sign, and mail. It is a sign of respect and professionalism. It is also distinctly personal.

I have counseled younger people to adopt this old-school technique as they build their own careers. I want them to understand the magic of a personal letter, the gravitas that the heft of paper and letterhead can lend to a message. It becomes more than a note; it's something that can be saved. And you never know when that might matter.

I have a friend who worked for MCA Universal back when Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman was still running it. My friend went to a party at Wasserman's home and saw a framed letter on the wall.

It was a personal note on White House stationery from John F. Kennedy to Wasserman, and it was dated November 20, 1963.

Kennedy had sent it two days before he was assassinated and the letter arrived in Wasserman's mail after the president's death.

Somehow, I just can't picture someone framing an email and hanging it on the wall - even if it was historic. 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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