The real purpose of a “Thank You Note”

Photography Students or Wannabe Photographers I realized that I need to connect the dots for many of you on how to start your career from those already in the profession.

First of all this is not about photography skills but about developing relationships which can help you grow professionally.

photo by Robin Nelson

While I love to teach photography skills such as lighting and students just love taking on those assignments it is the business tips that I share that for the most part very few ever follow through on and the reason is simple–it isn’t as fun.

I promise you if you have a good portfolio and do not listen to the professionals when they talk about business practices then you will have missed the most important tips we can share.

Mark Johnson’s Photojournalism Class in the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia.

If you are a student like those of Mark Johnson’s at UGA then you have a major advantage to those who are not students. Mark Johnson is the person who knows most people in the industry and can help make that first introduction for you.

While Mark may not pick up the phone to make the call he has in essence done this when he gives you the assignment and even names to call when you need to shadow a professional photographer.

That first email or phone call starts with my teacher Mark Johnson has given me an assignment. Those few words open a door that others cannot use.

Once you have met the photographer and done your assignment it is extremely important in your career to write a thank you note. I recommend the hand written note over an email or just saying thank you in person.

I am realizing now that more people are writing those thank you notes that they really forgot to ask themselves the question of “Why do I write this hand written note?”.

Students I can tell you the one thing that is quite annoying to your teachers and professionals who will hire you later is when you check off an assignment. This attitude of treating people and stories like items on a check list undermines the content.

To tell someones story you must peel the onion which also is building trust with the person. Checking your list is more like washing the onion rather than peeling the onion.

Most of the Thank You notes I get seem to be done to check this off the list. They really don’t know why they wrote the note other than they heard good etiquette requires it.

What is the purpose of a Thank You Note when you are trying to become a professional or move up in the profession? You are building a RELATIONSHIP with someone who can help you. If you are just trying to move up without the relationship it can come back to haunt you later on.

The type of relationship you build is up to you and the other person. Keeping it professional can be done without you having to become the best of friends. You still need to mix some kindness in your conversations.

My recommendation is to build your relationship over time. Thank them for what they have done and then ask if it is OK to contact them again.

You may say something like: “Thank you for taking time today to visit with me. Do you mind if I send you some sample of my work in a month or so and get some of your feedback?” Then do follow up.

Then it is much easier to ask again with your correspondence asking if they see any improvements based on their previous comments. It can be more detailed showing that you did listen and try to make those suggestions.

Then every once in a while just send a note thanking them for all they have done and how their suggestions have proven helpful in your professional development.

Ask them for referrals later in your relationship to see if they have someone they recommend that you get to know and show your work to for more professional growth.

While you may not have a desire to become good friends with some of the people who have helped you, do take the time and effort to thank them proportionally to how much they helped you.

If you got a job due to their connections and suggestions a small gift is a good way to let them know you were appreciative and not just using them. It could be just a gift card to Starbucks or something similar. Take them to lunch to catch up and tell them about your new job and thank them in person.

If you are reading this blog and you have people that have helped you along the way take a moment and write each of them a thank you note. Sometimes your note can be the little encouragement they need today. You would be surprised how many people never know that they made a difference in someone’s life. And if they life is you, then you need to thank them again even if you did it before.

It boils down to this. When you write a thank you note you are showing your appreciation for someone taking time out of their life that helped you. You also want to be sure that person that helped you is open to helping you even more if that is possible. Don’t write thank you notes to put a check on some list. Don’t be the person that just uses others for personal gain.

Just remember the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.