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How a personal touch stands out in the digital age

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Today, when you receive a "thank you" from your boss, it's probably in the form of a text message or e-mail. And while acknowledgment of a job well done is important, regardless of whether it's electronic or handwritten, it's critical that the communication speaks to the recipient as an individual.

It's no secret that handwritten letters and notes are going the way of CDs and VCRs. This almost-lost art has been replaced by e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook status updates, tweets and text messages – all forms of communication that are ubiquitous because we can fire them off quickly. By contrast, handwritten notes are more personal – and that personal touch is what's missing from most electronic messaging today.

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In 2011, the total number of worldwide social networking accounts, including both consumer and corporate accounts, was nearly 2.4 billion; this figure is expected to grow to nearly 3.9 billion by the end of 2015, according to a report by the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. The number of texts sent monthly in the United States jumped to 188 billion in 2010 from 14 billion in 2000, according to a Pew Institute survey.

Why should you care?

In the business world, sending messages of recognition, congratulations or appreciation, or directing a request or an appeal through Twitter, texting, Facebook or e-mail, is certainly faster and easier. But what is often missing in those communications is authenticity and forethought. When you put pen to paper, you are forced to think about what you are writing because you can't simply hit the delete key.

The fact that it takes longer to write out a personal note also speaks volumes to the recipients – that you took valuable time from your busy day to write a note just for them. Not just a personal note, but a personal handwritten note. It's the difference between receiving a gift of a scarf, for example, from a local department store, and one that someone created especially for you. Both are thoughtful, but the handcrafted gift means more.

It is unrealistic and impractical to hand write every note you send. However, you can take the time to make your messages more personal, and creating handwritten ones from time-to-time will remind you of the importance of what you're doing. Personal communications, including those written by hand, remain important in diplomatic circles, especially among some top government leaders. They should be as important in the business world. A truly personal note to a client, employee, supervisor or business colleague has many benefits:

· Your note will help you stand out, and be noticed and remembered in a way that the more fleeting messages can't accomplish.

· Handwritten notes especially come across as more thoughtful because you most likely had to carefully consider what to say before writing it down.

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· A tweet, text or e-mail can get quickly buried under a mountain of newer tweets, texts and e-mails. A personal or handwritten message will be remembered for a long time, even if it gets filed away.

· Personal notes from business leaders often help strengthen employee morale, heighten productivity, facilitate interpersonal communication and help retain team members who will feel more appreciated, leading to reduced recruiting and training costs.

Personal letters, including those written by hand, can have a powerful impact and move public opinion as well. CEOs like Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos write their own corporations' annual report letters, which are widely read because they are stimulating and written in plain language, rather than corporate-speak.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates wrote very personal letters to survivors of fallen military personnel – letters that always conveyed a deep sense of caring to the recipient. Kansas State University head football coach Bill Snyder often writes personal letters to members of his team as well as to opposing players who got injured or performed admirably.

It wasn't that the notes were always written in longhand – they most likely were not –but that the authors took the time to make their communications mean something special to individual receiving them.

The business world could gain a lot by recapturing this lost art. The next time you want to congratulate someone for a job well done, share a project outline with your co-workers, thank your boss for giving you a raise, inspire a newly hired worker, or show appreciation to a client, make it personal and better yet –write it by hand. You will be pleasantly surprised by the effect it has.

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Ritch Eich, president of Eich Associated, is a retired captain, U.S. Naval Reserve, who commanded three naval reserve units and served in NATO, JCS, Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. He is the author of Real Leaders Don't Boss (2012) and Leadership Requires Extra Innings (2013). He has a PhD in organizational behaviour and communication.

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