On the 25th Anniversary of the lunar landing, Neil Armstrong wrote a letter to the folks at the Johnson Space Center, to thank them for their part in sending him safely to the moon.
To the EMU gang:
I remember noting a quarter century or so ago that an emu was a 6 foot Australian flightless bird. I thought that got most of it right.
It turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history. That was no doubt due to the fact that it was so photogenic. Equally responsible for its success was its characteristic of hiding from view its ugly occupant.
Its true beauty, however, was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly.
To all of you who made it all that it was, I send a quarter century’s worth of thanks and congratulations.
(Signed) Neil A. Armstrong
This letter is posted on the Letters of Note blog, which is a fascinating collection of letters from well known people throughout history. (My personal favorite is probably the letter written by Marie Antoinette just before she lost her head.)
Some of the most valuable letters in the collection, however, are the thank you notes, which include the one above by Armstrong and the letters below, along with thank you letters by Audrey Hepburn, Ray Bradbury, J.K. Rowling, Barack Obama, Conan O’Brien, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe and more.
Reading them over started me thinking about what makes a thank you most meaningful. Here is what I’ve observed:
Be sincere: We all have childhood memories of thank you notes written under duress. “Thank you Aunt Mabel, for the fuzzy sweater. Even though it is June I am sure when the Fall finally comes I will enjoy it.” Sincerity is hard to fake. This letter from Johnny Depp to a group of fans who joined together to make him a quilt is a great example of sincerity. To have an impact, you must be inspired to thank, not compelled or bribed.
Be specific: Don’t just say “thanks”. Explain WHY you’re appreciative. It allows the recipient to revisit their triumph and makes it clear what behavior you’re so happy about. This also radically improves the chances of a repeat performance. A generic thank you just doesn’t carry the weight that a specific one. (The exception to this would be if you are as hilarious and clever as Rowan and Martin are in this “generic” thank you letter to John Wayne.)
Be timely: Try to offer your thanks as close as possible to the event (or in Armstrong’s case the anniversary) that inspired it. If you are a supervisor, for example, do not wait until a yearly performance review to appreciate the great job an employee did organizing an event last summer! Timely thanks is more meaningful and is also less likely to slip your mind. A great example of a timely thank you is this one from David Bowie, in response to his “very first American fan letter”.
Be public: Public appreciation sends a powerful message. If you can say thank you with witnesses it shows you really mean it. No matter which political lights you follow, it is hard not to be moved by this open letter from Ronald Reagan, written to the American people in 1994, after the former president was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “Let me thank you, the American people,” he writes, “for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president.”
Invest something: As the old saying goes “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” There is a reason that a handwritten card has more value than an eCard, and recognition that includes a reward—even a token reward—is much more effective than a one-click-and-its-done eThankyou. Why? Because people value that which requires some effort to give. Consider this charming response by author Roald Dahl to a 7-year old fan who took the time to send him a “dream in a bottle.” Make even a small effort and you can be sure that your thank you is more likely to be heard.