The essence of being a Toastmaster is the desire to improve one’s communication skills. However, making speeches, providing evaluations or participating in Table Topics aren’t the only ways to convey thought, emotion and opinion.
I have found tremendous satisfaction in writing letters of gratitude over the last four years. It’s astounding to me that I’ve written more than 100 letters over this period, to friends both old and new, business colleagues, family members, loved ones and those who have done me a particular kindness or service.
The concept came from a best-selling book titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. While much of the author’s advice didn’t resonate deeply with me, after I read the chapter about letters of gratitude I wrote my first letter that very day, to a work colleague who has been instrumental to me in innumerable ways.
Since that time I’ve written to my wife and kids, sisters and brother, in-laws, other relatives, childhood pals, former teammates and those I’ve known for a short time. I even wrote a letter to my Toastmasters club, thanking them for their support and advice as I navigated the various stages of the International Speech Contest.
There are four main reasons this hobby is so gratifying and has such a positive effect:
Receiving a letter of gratitude makes the recipient feel good.
Much of the mail we receive on a daily basis consists of either bills, catalogs or solicitations. To receive an out-of-the-blue, completely unexpected letter singing your praises and expressing gratitude for your relationship is a tremendous day-brightener. (My letters are a single, complete page of type, but handwritten notes are at least as good. The advantage of using the computer is storing this ever-growing archive of letters on my hard drive.)
Writing a letter of gratitude makes the writer feel good.
Call it the good deed of the day—but it’s actually a more significant and permanent gesture, far beyond holding the elevator or helping an elderly person cross the street. There is a real sense of satisfaction in writing and mailing letters like this. It provides a glow that’s hard to replicate.
Receiving a letter of gratitude makes the recipient feel good—about you!
Part of the appeal of Toastmasters is to receive feedback—but also approval. All people, Toastmasters or not, want others to like them; it’s just human nature. When an unsuspecting recipient opens and reads a letter expressing gratitude for their friendship, and reasons why they’re important to you, they can’t help but be moved or flattered by the gesture. Put it this way: The recipient’s opinion of the letter writer might go up, or perhaps stay the same—but it would never go down!
The pay-it-forward effect.
There’s a chance the recipient, having been moved and impacted by the letter received by you, is compelled to write a letter to someone he or she feels grateful to. Perhaps they’ll write another or several more, and perhaps their recipients will do the same. The “ripple effect” will have people expressing their feelings to those in their orbit, who in turn might feel compelled to do the same thing.
It seems unlikely that more than a few readers of this article will ever approach triple figures in terms of writing letters of gratitude. To me it is a point of pride, and I take an equal amount of satisfaction in this archive as I do in the fact I’ve written eight books to date and contributed features, essays and profiles to well over 100 publications.
However, let me urge you to write one letter, anyway, just for starters. Not a text, not an email or emoticon, but a physical manifestation of your feelings, with a stamp and envelope. Maybe to your mom, or daughter, your deployed son or nephew, your boss or an important mentor, a dear childhood friend with whom you’ve long been out of contact, or perhaps your college roommate. Maybe even your spouse.
Chances are you’ll feel compelled to write another one after that.
Joel Zuckerman, CC is a professional speaker and longtime member of Park City Toastmasters club in Park City, Utah.