One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, recently posted another little list of email tips.
Of course, they’re pretty much all useful and accurate. I mean, it’s hard to write a “tip” that is flat-out wrong. But I was thinking about it more in the sense of why, in 2010, do high-profile people with things to say get caught up in “email tips” or other minutiae of their fields?
For Seth, email is no more specially relevant (in the sense it’s discussed here) than it is for pretty much anyone. (He does have special things to say about marketing emails to customers and how to dance the tango with that one; but that’s really about marketing, not email.) For Fred Wilson, partner at Union Square Ventures, the basic, undergrad level stuff about finance that he’s been posting as “MBA Mondays” is far below the level at which he’s presumably operating (assumption based on: Wharton MBA, co-founder Flatiron Partners, investor in Twitter, Foursquare, Etsy, Meetup, Return Path, Del.icio.us, Feedburner).
So two questions: first, why don’t we know how to use email yet? Is it really just that everyone my parents’ age is emailing all the time now? Really? For work? They’re in their early 60s. I don’t think there are many folks that age just starting to use email in the workplace, but I could be wrong. Show me, and I’ll believe it.
What should experts write about?
Second, if you’re a hotshot guru, if you’re an actual expert at something, even if that’s being an expert in communicating about something that seems mundane or even unimportant or at least non-mystical to many people (Blogs about wine? Gardening? Cooking? With a waffle iron?), what would drive you to spend time on these types of seemingly low-value questions? Is it just about sharing what’s free?
I thought recently about why I answer basic questions in my field — it’s because my clients are not experts in the field and these seemingly basic questions are not basic for them. So it’s my belief that these readers get value disproportionate (hopefully in their favor!) to my cost to provide it. It gives them a chance to learn about my way of approaching problems, a sense of my depth of of knowledge on the real issues, and maybe even an introduction to me when we wouldn’t have met otherwise. So sure, the Five-Minute General Counsel series is marketing. But it provides value because it’s me talking about topics on which I am an expert.
I am worried about the viability of my potential client base, however, if the pool of startup candidates for Fred’s attention are so far down the learning curve in terms of business planning that they don’t understand discount rates, CAGR, or the law of large numbers. Conveniently for many of them, I’m well-versed in finance too. Financial models and ranger-level attention to detail? Match made in heaven (twice).
Front-line management (which is the starting point for most leadership development) has had its share of tips from me, which I think of as different, but maybe that’s not true. And I’ve written about email and productivity too. Part of the productivity dance is sharing what works for me, a version of the mobile professional: I’m a lawyer and strategic advisor who works with relatively small teams on any particular engagement or matter. My advice is (not the same as having 75+ people working on a software beta launch).
Email tips? Really?
So back to the main point: really, do we still need email tips? Even people of my generation (early 40s, or what I like to call “mid-30s”) who didn’t see email commonly until after college (for me, it was law school in 1994 at Cornell that introduced email as a common tool), have still had 15+ years of experience with email.
If we keep working at this level, if we don’t expect some kind of improvement, we’re going to be telling people every year for the next 50 years about how to write emails, how to read email, and how to save money for retirement.
We can’t have our smartest guides, our best communicators, teaching remedial classes. Not if we want to make any progress.