It’s a strange vocation, I guess:
I’m a writer who spends much of my professional life convincing writers to teach at professional development events for other writers.
In exchange for their generosity, my guest teachers get a day at a conference instead of at work, plus some useful exposure to potential clients or employers—and usually a gratifying chance to teach all their hard-learned lessons to people who can use their wisdom, and who are excited to be in their presence. Once at my conference, a former political speechwriter stood talking to participants for two hours after her session ended. I asked her why she didn’t go home. “As long as I’m here, I’m an important speechwriter,” she explained. “As soon as I go home, I’m nobody again.”
So these arrangements usually seem like a fair trade all the way around.
And if time is money, then I put my money where my mouth is, saying yes to pretty much every invitation I receive to guest-lecture at a university class. And I get these a fair amount. In the last year or two, I’ve taught classes (mostly on Zoom, but not all) at the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Penn State, the University of Florida, Columbia College, Loyola (or was it DePaul?), Bowling Green University, the University of Southern California, and a bunch more that I’m forgetting.
Love to do it! Keeps me young! Keeps me honest! Keeps me sharp! (As I’ve written here recently.)
And afterwards, I always get the nicest note from the professor, not just thanking me for my time, but remarking on which parts of my lecture seemed to land with the students. Sometimes the professor shares with me comments from the students afterwards.
I think I used to think these notes were icing on the cake, and nothing more. Until I gave a lecture not long ago—which involved an hourlong prep call as well as the lecture itself, which did not end until 9:30 p.m.
And got back from the teacher, “Thank you so much for taking the time to share the history and perspectives of executive communications with my Strategic Communication Consulting class. Appreciate it! Please let me know if I can ever return the favor.”
I was reminded of a pal who once took a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist out on a date. Fancy seafood place. Martinis. Wine. A long walk to the train, a long talk at the station. A little peck, which felt to my friend like the promise of another, one day.
Next morning, my pal woke up early and eagerly checked his email, looking for a note from his new maybe-flame. But nothing. Okay.
Nine goes past.
Around eleven, he couldn’t take it anymore, so he wrote her a note, thanking her for a good time and touching on some of the funny conversations they had had, and some of the meaningful ones, too.
Came back the response from the Pulitzer Prize-winner, in all its glorious entirety:
“It was fun.”
Those of us in and around the writing biz, we have to do better than this. A thank-you note can be pithy, but it simply must include something only you could have written, to only that person, in appreciation of the specific thing that person delivered. And it seems to me it ought also to be humor-laced and a little writerly, too.
When the thank-you note is the most you can offer, a decent one is the least you can do.