Bass Reeves didn't know how to read or write. But he understood the power of a handwritten letter.
Reeves was a slave who escaped from his owner during the U.S. Civil War. He settled in what was called Indian Territory and began to raise a family.
In 1875, he was called on to help clean up Indian Territory, which was part of the classic Old West, with plenty of outlaws who were running wild. From 1875 to 1907, Bass served as deputy U.S. Marshal, and he was legendary for his strength and invincibility.
One day, Reeves caught up with a couple of Texas murderers he was after, but they captured him and held him hostage. He didn't tell them who he was, so they planned to ask people along the road if they knew him.
It was a lonely road, and after a while, they got tired of keeping him in tow, so they forced him to dismount and prepared to execute him. They asked him if he had any last words, and Reeves said he had a letter from his wife in his hat, and since he couldn't read, he wondered if they might read it to him.
They all got off their horses, and he handed them the letter with shaking hands. Once their attention was off of him, the marshal drew his weapon and captured them both, as they were too surprised to react quickly.
Bass Reeves said he used this trick a number of times in his career.
The unexpected makes an impact, every time
“A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”
– Emily Dickinson
When's the last time you wrote someone a letter?
I'm not talking about an email or a text message. I mean an honest to goodness, old fashioned, handwritten letter.
You know, like the kind your grandmother probably wrote to you when you were a kid.
For personal use? What about for business? It's probably been a while, hasn't it?
When your customers are out there trying to figure out how to maximize their Snapchat Stories, or how many photos they should put in an Instagram Carousel, or even how many catalogues to send out, it's a great opportunity to step in with your personal notes.
In other words, zig when everyone else is zagging.
I see news about people using Facebook less — even the 15 million Millennials that Facebook lost last year. The pendulum is swinging, and people are opting for more private, intimate conversations. Maybe in groups or chat rooms. Texts and DMs. And in that context, they're ready for something that makes them feel special and unique.
That's what the written word does. It says to the recipient, "You matter. You matter enough for someone to sit down, keep themselves away from a screen, and think about what it is that they're saying to you."
Back when I was at Ford, I once sent a handwritten note and a Ford lapel pin to someone I met at a conference who said she was a fan. She wrote about the experience on her site and shared how different an experience that was. I wrote about it a few months ago.
Did it take an effort to do that? Sure. But that's what made it treasured.
The only thing is, you need to pay attention — to your customers, to your employees, to people that matter — if you want to be inspired enough to make a difference.
"If you would not be forgotten, as you as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing."
– Benjamin Franklin
Image credit: News from my Lad by James Campbell, 1859 (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)