Impact of Ideas

What happened after my TED Talk? I quit my job, wrote a book, grew my organization, and promoted a US postage stamp in Times Square

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Hannah Brencher carried a USPS mail crate with her when she spoke at TED@NYC. Photo: Ryan Lash

Hannah Brencher carried a USPS mail crate with her when she spoke at TED@NYC. Photo: Ryan Lash

Hannah Brencher strolled onstage to give her TED Talk, “Love letters to strangers,” with a US Postal Service mail crate propped on her hip. And that mail crate full of letters turned out to be a metaphor for what happened next — a box of surprises and possibilities.

Onstage at Joe’s Pub in June 2012, Brencher told her story of writing love letters to strangers — yes, in her own handwriting — and leaving them on café tables, tucking them in books at the library, and sending them to anyone on the internet who asked. The project, which she began as a way to fight her post-college depression, took on its own life, so Brencher set up the website More Love Letters to help the letter-writing project expand to anyone who wants to get or send a little love.

As she wrote and practiced her TED Talk in the weeks before the June event, she was also daydreaming about leaving her full-time job to focus on More Love Letters — and to try her hand at writing her story as a memoir.

“The week I gave my talk,” says Brencher, “I was offered a freelance position that allowed me to leave my full-time job. So I gave my TED Talk, and then I walked into my office Monday morning and quit. It was a transformational weekend.”

But not an instant transformation, she says: “I left to work on More Love Letters and to write a book. But I started to gather more and more freelance work and just got very good at doing other things. I didn’t know how to do a book proposal; I didn’t know how to find an agent. I was just stalling.”

Then one day, five months after she quit her job, her phone started blowing up. “Friends started texting me saying, ‘Hannah, you’re the TED Talk of the Day right now,’” she remembers. “My life just flipped upside down from that point forward. Within 24 hours, my life was completely different.”

In the five months since her talk, Brencher hadn’t gotten far at all on her book idea. But a few hours after her talk posted, she got the push she needed: an email from an agent. “She sent me a message that said, ‘Hey, this resonates so much with me,’” remembers Brencher. “‘What you’re doing—I see this being a book.'”

Brencher signed with this agent, and the two began the long process of writing a book proposal. In the end, Brencher signed a contract with Howard Books at Simon & Schuster, and her memoir—If You Find This Letter—will be out in March 2015. “It tells her story of living in New York City, dealing with depression, and the movement that came out of these letters,” she says. “I had no idea how much [writing a book] was going to take out of me—how much I had to become a creature of habit, how much I had to sit with myself on a daily basis, and how much of the story I didn’t actually have figured out until I went to the page. There were a lot of days of me lying on the floor, crying into the Ikea carpet. But I am so thankful. It’s been just unreal to me.”

But as exciting as it was to get an agent and start writing her book, Brencher says that she knew the talk had truly made ripples when More Love Letters was asked to partner with the US Postal Service, after someone at the post office’s PR agency saw her TED Talk. The agency asked Brencher and More Love Letters to help promote the post office’s traditional Love stamp released each February for Valentine’s Day. The 2013 stamp was called “Sealed with Love.”

For the 14 days before Valentine’s Day in 2013, More Love Letters held love-letter-writing parties around the country and rallied their audience to write love letters to men and women serving in the U.S. military for the holiday.

Sealed with Love Table

Brencher snapped this photo of the letter-writing table she manned to promote the stamp, “Sealed with Love.”

On February 14, Brencher headed to Times Square in New York City, where the Postal Service had pitched an enormous “Sealed with Love” tent. She wore a red dress and sat a table writing love letters and offering stationery to passersby to write their own. In the tent, post office employees passed out stamps. Meanwhile, pop star Kevin Jonas and his wife—her fellow representatives for the stamp—roamed the tent, meeting and greeting.

“It was a dream partnership,” said Brencher. “We would not be able to function without the United States Postal Service, so to be able to meet some of the workers was great. People make comments like, ‘Oh, the Postal Service is on the way out,’ but it is so essential. I loved handing out envelopes and stamps and playing a part in making someone who would probably not write a letter reach out to a loved one.”

Of course, much more has happened since Brencher’s TED Talk posted. Brencher’s created a love-letter stationery kit through Potter Style at Crown Publishing; it will appear in gift stores in December of this year. Brencher continues to receive dozens of emails a week about her talk, and found herself especially moved when a class of 5th graders in Long Island watched it and wrote her a big stack of letters in response.

Meanwhile, More Love Letters is now up to 15 volunteers. Brencher hopes that with increased visibility through her talk, her book, and releasing more products like the stationery kit, More Love Letters will continue to grow.

“Letters—whether they’re breakup letters, or letters for people who are starting their first year of college, or just a random hello—we want to find a way to get them to as many people as possible,” she says. “Something that shows up in the mailbox for you—there’s a power behind that that you can’t touch.”

Hannah Brencher, heads down, writing Valentine's day love letters in Times Square. Photo: Courtesy of Hannah Brencher

Hannah Brencher, head down, writing Valentine’s Day love letters in Times Square.