Letter Writing as a Personal Brand

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“The writing is on the wall” usually means we’re cooked. Dating back to biblical times, this saying is typically used to describe an unavoidable situation, the inevitability of something dire, which at best will be difficult to avert.

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So before we get caught up in marathons, baseball, daffodils — none of which can come soon enough, especially here in Boston — we might take a minute to acknowledge a lesser-known April tradition: National Card and Letter Writing Month.

Yes, I wrote “letter writing” in the same paragraph with “baseball.” That’s how important this is. I suppose a letter can be “written” on a computer, but whoever has put the oomph into this effort likely wants us to take this month-long designation more seriously — and literally. These days “writing on a wall” usually involves logging into Facebook, likely not how they did it B.C.  Letter writing: words formed while holding a pen and allowing ink to flow onto paper. Presumably while breathing and maybe even thinking.

Some say it’s a lost art. I think we’re the losers.

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The Letter Writers Alliance — “for those who enjoy letter writing and postal adventures” — puts it this way:

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In this era of instantaneous communication, a handwritten letter is a rare and wondrous item. The Letter Writers Alliance is dedicated to preserving this art form. Prepare your pen and paper, moisten your tongue, and get ready to write more letters!

The benefits of writing by hand are many. More than a nice thing to do (which it is), much has been penned about this subject (likely using a Mac). Remorse and regret abound, but most say it’s inevitable: why bother with a Bic when your device has voice recognition? So, right down to the satisfying act of gripping a pen, let us count the ways.

Studies show that new generations of children won’t know how to hold a crayon as they slide index finger across screens to form etch-a-sketch-like numbers and letters.

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The brain development of these same kids — and their parents — will depend less on what they write than how they write. Forming the written word stimulates the brain, challenges its retention of information and enhances one’s ability to generate ideas. It is in the doing, the creating, not the observing or the simulating, that learning and memory will happen. The practice of handwriting, with its variances and intricacies, the very messiness of it, generates ideas and grows vocabularies. In other words, action speaks louder.

According to a June 2014 piece in The New York Times by Maria Konnikova:

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Cursive or not, the benefits of writing by hand extend beyond childhood. For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information. Not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.

But if having a better brain doesn’t do it for you, what about one’s place in history?

What are the chances, a hundred years from now, that a Word doc with tracked changes filed on some cloud will find its way into the hands of our great-grandchildren, much less tomorrow’s writers of history? So long to shoeboxes filled with love letters from Grandpa. (“Wait…who’s Grandpa?”)

Brain…history…do we care about letter writing yet? How about identity?

The New York Times recent article on demand for Manhattan’s “coveted 212 area code” cites it as “a status symbol” and the “only acceptable area code for a Manhattanite.” I feel the same way about 617.

Millions are spent on monogrammed sheets and towels, engraved silver patterns or the family crest. If a phone number or zip code matters that much to one’s identity, then let’s consider the impact of our very own handwriting. Talk about a differentiator: like a fingerprint, there’s no competition, no replication. Of course, there’s always forgery. But that’s never exactly right – or written. More than what we wear, say or do, our signature is, well, our signature. It’s as authentic as one can get: the epitome of our personal brand.

Wisdom would suggest that something as important as our very own “brand,” whether institutional or individual, deserves a look within rather than around.

Yet I admit that I am less inclined to pick up a pen myself these days. Why, with keyboards of various shapes and sizes always within arm’s reach (or in one’s hand), should we choose a method that’s been around since neolithic times, like the 4th millennium B.C.?

That’s why I fear our fixation with instant messaging, sound bites and the 140-character limit of tweets. How can we reconcile the glut and impersonal nature of it all? That word “impression” — to impress — isn’t that what this is all about? Quick and brief look-at-me’s? Clicking thumbs-up or thumbs-down to grant approval or to prove that we’re paying attention? These attempts to get personal and be social lack a real connection.

Unlike writing by hand. That takes time. It takes effort. It takes a stamp.

Last September, our family lost someone special. She was my aunt, godmother and go-to. A prolific letter writer who singlehandedly kept the U.S. Postal Service afloat, Auntie wrote — on unlined paper, no less — every day from the time she was a young woman. Some days, a dozen or more notes or letters to family, friends and complete strangers made their way to the mailbox. Her words will live on for generations. Her tell-tale handwriting, changing ever slightly over the years, was her mark, her personal brand (ironically something she knew absolutely nothing about.) No shortage of attempts to convert her:  the old word processor, laptops, iPads — each returned to sender. There was no ambiguity in her effort. No mistaking her motives. Auntie was about care and concern for others, and her letter-writing was and is wholly interminable. While the value of her letters increases with time — those treasured white envelopes chock-full of life lessons about faith, love and selflessness — her gift, the simple act of putting pen to paper, is priceless.

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In other words, actions do speak louder than words. Letter-writing is a nice thing to do for others. But if that isn’t convincing, do it for you. As an art form. As a brain booster. As a personal brand. Pick your reason. Put down the iPhone, pick up a pen, and write a letter, even a short one, to your aunt, a friend, a neighbor. Or to your one-day great grandchild. Make your mark. It doesn’t matter what you write, it matters how.

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Leslie Cargill
Leslie Cargill is a “smarketer” and communicator, privileged to work with leading brands like Boston Ballet, United Way, the Museum of Science and the Boston Red Sox. From baseball to ballet, she advances experience-based programs in the arts, tourism, education, entertainment, healthcare, fitness and sports. While the goal is to retain and grow an existing base of business, the trick is in developing new or "non-traditional" audiences. She was Director of Marketing and Communications with Boston Ballet before returning to her consulting practice where she serves as advisor, project manager and interim CMO for her clients. She believes in a good mix of marketing basics, a campaign approach, and both program and institutional strategies in branding, positioning, messaging and communicating. A dyed-in-the wool New Englander, she splits her time between Boston and her family home on the coast of Maine. She can be reached at leslie@cargillboston.com. Or call Leslie at 617.913.9000.