With graduation season recently passed and many early summer weddings ongoing, a lot of people are facing the task of writing a big pile of notes to friends and family, thanking them for their gift-giving generosity. I’ve faced down this big task several different times in my life – and interestingly enough, most of those occasions fell squarely in the middle of the month of June.
Frankly, though, thank you notes can be a big source of anxiety for many people and it’s often something that’s put off until later because of that anxiety. To help get through that anxiety, here’s a guide to thank you notes, covering when they’re appropriate to send and how to assemble an effective one.
Why Send Thank You Notes At All?
A thank you note has two big things going for it.
It’s a simple way of showing gratitude towards someone who has done something kind for you. Whenever someone gives you a gift, they’re taking a piece of their own resources and handing it to you, a resource that could have been used to plan for their own future. With that consideration, I’m usually quite grateful for any gift I receive, and a thank you note is a very tangible way to show your thanks for that gift. It’s something that takes just a moment or two of your own time, yet clearly and permanently shows gratitude for a gift to someone else.
It keeps the communication loop open between you and that person. A thank you note extends the window of opportunity of communication with someone else, keeping your name in their mind. It’s for this reason that many people advise sending a thank you note after a job interview, as it will add a late positive to their opinion of you as they make a hiring decision. It can also serve to keep open communications with someone with whom you may have a strained or a small relationship.
In other words, a handwritten thank you note is a perfect balm for many situations. It can help extend your personal relationships and also in extending your career.
When Are Thank You Notes Appropriate?
A long time ago, I wrote a paean to the thank you note that listed many occasions upon which a thank you note is appropriate. Here are some of those occasions.
Whenever you receive a gift, send a thank-you note. If someone sends you a gift (that’s more than just a product promotion), this is a great opportunity for such a note. This is particularly true with Christmas and other personal gift-giving occasions, though for personal notes, you should use blank, hand-written notes.
Whenever you interview for a job, send a thank-you note. This is true whether or not the interview went well; in either event, you should show appreciation. Why? Even in the worst case scenario, it taught you some things about yourself.
Whenever someone does something for you that is helpful for either your personal or professional life, send a thank-you note. I find these are the most powerful ones in terms of building a network of people that you can regularly connect with. I’m not typically the most social person, so when I am able to make a significant contact with a person, I make sure to follow up, because those individuals may eventually become your co-workers, your clients, or potentially your friends.
Whenever you establish a new professional contact, send a thank-you note. This doesn’t mean that you should send a note to every person that gives you a business card. Instead, wait for encounters that are actually meaningful. What I do is if I spent time interacting with someone and some genuinely fruitful ideas come out of the meeting, I’ll take their card and jot down a quick note on the back as a reminder. Then, when I have a few moments, I take the cards with notes on the back and issue thank-you notes to those individuals, using the jotted note as a reminder.
Avoid sending thank-you notes to the same person more often than every six months. I’ve found that more often than this creates a sycophantic impression, which is a negative. One note is great; five notes is creepy.
In short, send a thank you note when someone does something for you that has a positive impact on their life.
How to Write an Effective Thank You Note
First of all, thank you notes can be written on very informal stationery. I’m partial to very simple cards with an elegant image on the front and a blank inside upon which a note can be written. Don’t sweat it too much – just pick something that you like that isn’t potentially offensive to others.
Second, always hand write a thank you note. A handwritten thank you note has a certain level of elegance that you just can’t capture by typing and printing a note. Take out your pen and write down your thoughts. If you prefer, you can draft the note at the keyboard, but then copy your final text from the screen to the card.
Given that, it’s okay to use printed labels to save time with addressing the envelopes. Whenever we have many cards to send, I always print a sheet of address labels using my electronic address book. Not only does this save time, it also ensures accuracy of the address. As long as the note inside is handwritten, this is completely appropriate.
Addressing the thank you note Start off with the word “Dear,” then imagine you walked into a room and saw this person (or these people) without having seen them for a year. How would you address them? That’s what you should use next. For example, if it’s an old friend, use their first name. If it’s one of your parents’ friends that you don’t know particularly well, use Mr. and Mrs. Lastname. If you’re not sure, ask a person in the middle.
The first sentence Say “thank you for” and state the gift or opportunity you’ve been given. Here are three examples:
Thank you for the gift of $20 on the occasion of my graduation.
Thank you for the opportunity to interview for the systems analyst position.
Thank you for the wonderful dinner party you hosted on the 20th.
Thank you for the set of kitchen knives you gave to us for our wedding.
The second piece Express a further detailed appreciation of the gift or opportunity by explaining what it meant to you or what you plan on doing with the gift. Continuing with the above examples:
I plan on using that money to help buy textbooks in the fall.
It was exciting and interesting to learn more about your organization and the analyst position.
The roasted lamb was exquisite and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Barack and Michelle.
The knives have already found a home in our kitchen, and just last night I used the chef’s knife in preparing our first meal at home as a married couple.
The third piece Try to build towards a future connection with the note target. Some examples:
I hope you’ll stop in over Thanksgiving break at my parents so we can touch base and I can tell you all about my first semester in college.
I hope to hear from you soon about the position, and I hope that your organization and I can have a long and happy relationship.
Marge and I are planning a dinner party of our own in October, and I’ll be sure to call you to check with your calendar very soon.
We plan on being back there in August and we hope that we’ll bump into you then.
The signature Sign it pleasantly and friendly, no matter what. I almost always sign my notes “Thanks again!” and my name under that.
Here are the four full notes from the examples above.
Dear Mr. Hobbs,
Thank you for the gift of $20 on the occasion of my graduation. I plan on using that money to help buy textbooks in the fall. I hope you’ll stop in over Thanksgiving break at my parents so we can touch base and I can tell you all about my first semester in college.
Dear Dr. McCaskill,
Thank you for the opportunity to interview for the systems analyst position. It was exciting and interesting to learn more about your organization and the analyst position. I hope to hear from you soon about the position, and I hope that your organization and I can have a long and happy relationship.
Dear Mr. Hobbs,
Thank you for the set of kitchen knives you gave to us for our wedding. The knives have already found a home in our kitchen, and just last night I used the chef’s knife in preparing our first meal at home as a married couple. We plan on being back there in August and we hope that we’ll bump into you then.
Bill and Marjorie Larson
Dear Steve and Colleen,
Thank you for the wonderful dinner party you hosted on the 20th. The roasted lamb was exquisite and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Barack and Michelle. Marjorie and I are planning a dinner party of our own in October, and I’ll be sure to call you to check with your calendar very soon.
But it doesn’t sound natural! This is why it’s often good to work on a note on the keyboard first, where you can edit it a bit until it sounds natural. Copy and paste a note from above, edit the pieces as you see fit, and keep tweaking until it sounds right. When it does, you’re probably very close to something that will work for all of your thank you notes, so pull out the pen and get to work!