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3 things David Letterman taught us about graceful exits

David Letterman and Good Business Communications

Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’ve watched David Letterman since the early days and while my attention to his show has waned in recent years, I’ve always appreciated his prickly, peculiar approach to late night. Yesterday evening watching his final show – the first show I’d watched in a long while – I was moved by his expression of gratitude to friends, family and staff. He did it right. He took a few moments and paid his respects.

While most of us won’t experience a big public exit moment like Letterman did last night, we have many smaller versions of it throughout our professional lives – retirement, career transitions, awards, nominations, new positions, etc. Here are three things we can learn from David Letterman:

1. Be humble and unsentimental – His remarks showed a man who feels lucky for all he has been able to do and accomplish and clearly knows nothing of it would have happened without the support of others.

2. Be specific in your appreciation – Each person he addressed, from his manager to his band leader to the crew in the control room, he said something that was particular, meaningful and resonant to that person. It is easy to talk in generalities when acknowledging others (“Hey, you were great, thanks!”), but to pinpoint critical things people did along the way to make you better is powerful.

3. Acknowledge your family – Dave gave a shout-out to his wife Regina and son Harry saying, “Thank you for being my family. I love you both and really, nothing else matters, does it?”

Dave took his time and said everything that was important for him to say and ended with, “The only thing I have left to do, for the last time on a television program: Thank you and good night.”  Thanks, Dave.