Words Matter: Handwritten

By MERRIE SPAETH, Special to UPI  |  July 1, 2004 at 12:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- A handwritten letter is an entirely different form of communication. Too many business people have forgotten that. Yet with the recent death of President Reagan, we are reminded of the impact of handwritten letters.

Letter writing in itself has declined as a skill (as has writing, but that's another column), and preprinted cards and e-mail have waged the equivalent of nuclear war against letter writing, but for those hardy souls who do write letters, typed letters are the norm.

President Reagan's handwritten letter to then-prime minister Michael Gorbachev in 1985 is especially revealing and should put to rest once and for all the myth that Reagan was an actor-puppet who let others do his thinking. The letter follows their first meeting, and in his first paragraph Reagan writes, "There are some things I would like to convey personally and privately." Then the leader of the Free World assures the Soviet leader that the United States does not intend to place offensive weapons in space and that he and Gorbachev agree on the most important issues.

The personal method of conveyance -- a handwritten letter -- makes the words credible.

This past winter, following my husband's sudden and unexpected death, we received cards and letters from hundreds of people. All were appreciated. Former Cabinet members and others wrote long, eloquent letters about Tex's achievements and contributions. People like Rudy Giuliani and former colleagues from the Department of Justice, Federal Bench and friends sent pages of handwritten remembrances and condolences. Susan Whyman, historian and expert on English letter writing in the 17th and 18th century, writes about how we feel "opening a letter that has just arrived," and about "the feel of the paper as it is unfolded." She is correct. A handwritten letter was a special joy.

People wrote on all sorts of paper and in cursive, print and unique combinations of penmanship. We were stunned -- and pleased -- to receive a long, handwritten letter in bold calligraphy from Tom Campbell, the former congressman, now dean of the Haas Business School at Berkeley. Dean Campbell wrote, "Perhaps he shared with you how he intervened to help me in the 2000 Senate race." Actually, Tex never shared that with me, but Dean Campbell did, and the words were more welcome and poignant in the elegant black letters on his personal stationary. We will keep all the letters, but the handwritten ones are reread over and over.

Short, handwritten notes, as opposed to several paragraphs or pages, have an impact, too. We recommend that all business people get postcard size note cards with their name at the top so they can write a handwritten hello, thank you or other comment. (Tip: cards with a line across the top or forming an interior box allow the writer to get away with a single line.) I have such notes from Presidents George H.W. Bush and Reagan, and William Paley, founder of CBS, and they're framed and hung on my walls. My prize is a small note from E.B. White to whom I had written asking if he would autograph a book for Michael Deaver. White wrote back, "You may send the book. I don't want to annoy the White House."

But letters, ahh -- those longer graphs of handwritten comments, are most special. Those in need of assistance can turn to Eras of Elegance which offers stationary, pens and advice on how to write, and provides it electronically on the Web at www.erasofelegance.com.

Resurrect the handwritten letter. Although it takes somewhat longer to write than a typed one, handwritten letters jump over their competition. They are saved, and as with those on Tex's death, reread. Letters turn comments into communication and transform associations into relationships and then into friendships. Preprinted cards for various occasions can be wonderful but should not be a substitute for letters.

In President Reagan's 1994 letter, he discusses the diagnosis of the disease which forced him and Mrs. Reagan into a decade of seclusion and ultimately took his life. He chose the handwritten letter as the method of announcement, infinitely more effective than a statement or typed letter, and wrote, "We feel it is important to share it with you." Not only was he correct in his generosity, he understood that writing in his own hand was the perfect vehicle for the personal message. As individual citizens and business men and women, we should relearn that lesson.

Merrie Spaeth, the president of a Dallas-based consulting firm, is a regular commentator and writer on communication issues. She was the director of media relations for President Reagan.

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