An email can be from your business partner of a decade, a stranger who likes something you’ve said and wants to tell you, a troll from across the globe who wants to angrily finger waggle at you, or the computer system at the pharmacy letting your know your prescriptions are ready.
Most folks will give their email address to just about anybody, or make it entirely public. It’s often the only communication method they do that with. On the current version of my personal website, I put it in plain text right in the footer:
Your inbox is a wilderness in the way your incoming phone calls likely are not.
Phone calls are much more sacred. Most folks don’t publicly post their personal phone number. They don’t want phone calls from people they don’t know. I sure as heck don’t. They don’t want texts at all hours of the day. That’s what email is for, thank you very much.
They rarely post their address either. Perhaps a P.O. box or business address, but not a personal addresses. Personal letters are wonderful, but not from strangers posted to the address I sleep at. That feels quite literally dangerous.
Even publishing your Facebook profile is more and
more rare. Again a business account, sure, but not my personal account. That’s already full of garbage without strangers engaging with me there.
Email, though. People will share their email address publicly. Strangers can email you and, while it’s not always awesome, it doesn’t feel nearly as scary or unwelcome. Email is much easier to manage.
Once in a
while I run across someone who I’m trying to contact who’s clearly intentionally made it impossible to find their email address. You can always tell, as we all secretly
thing we’re amazing internet sleuths and can’t be easily foiled in a simple game of hunt for the email. In the end, we think no problem, this person clearly doesn’t like email and does not want to be contacted for any reason. Then we check to see if they have open DMs on Twitter just in case.
For real though, I’ve definitely had emails I’ve stared at for wayyy too long. Emotionally, I very much want to reply. But my brain can’t come up with the right thing to say.
I wonder if this is a good (and somewhat non-traditional) use of snoozing an email. It’s not that I can’t or don’t want to deal with it right now, it’s that I need to stop looking at it and let my brain sort it out on it’s own time.
Get enthusiasm on the cheap by buying a fancy wooden pencil to write everything down. A $3 pencil is now more exciting than a $2,000 computer. Many people will do the most mundane work just to feel a good tool fly.
Stay on paper as long as possible. Sketch and write things out long-hand, possibly even emails. We all know screens are distracting. It’s much more pragmatic to step away from them for a significant block of time than trying to learn an attentional
jiu jitsu that may be impossible. If you think you can’t step away, do it anyway for one day to see how much trouble it causes. That’s useful information.
Have you ever written an email literally on paper first? I’m not sure I ever have. I like the idea though. If anything, I write it in another app (like
iA writer) first, because for whatever reason the separation from my actual email app feels appropriate.
Asynchronous, meaning the sending of an email and the reply
don’t happen in quick succession. Nothing like chat, which you could call synchronous. They are often separated by minutes, hours, or days. In fact if you get a personal email reply in a minute or two, it’s often a bit shocking.
Just by the nature of sending an email, we’re saying “get back to me as soon as you can.” If you need an answer right this second, people don’t email. They use a communication method that will trigger an instant notification, like a phone call or text. People generally don’t allow random incoming emails to trigger notifications¹.
If you need an answer from someone immediately, and you don’t have any immediate communication methods in common with them, you might just be out of luck. Perhaps write with a sense of urgency and expectation in the email, and try to establish another communication method as soon as you can. For example, I’ve hired a babysitter and lined up everything so far via email, it’s on me to make sure I have a more immediate communication method than that.
If you don’t have someone’s phone number, there is a chance that’s because they don’t want you to have it.
This asynchronous nature of email, and how it’s become the expectation, is another reason for the success of email. It makes email a lot more comfortable. It allows people to be a lot more public about sharing their email address, which is something we’ll have to talk about soon.
¹ Although! I had a fellow from Sweden once write to me to say that he doesn’t like how the weekly email newsletter from my product arrived in the wee hours of the morning. He keeps his phone by his bedside and the beep from the incoming email wakes him up. I really wanted to write some custom code just for this one guy to make sure that didn’t happen to him, but I never did get around to it.
Perhaps part of the success¹ of email is that it can take so many possible forms. Technically an email can either be:
Both have their strengths. I don’t send many² personal or business emails in HTML. The applications I build rarely send email in plain text alone (links and some typographic control are nice, at a minimum).
More importantly, even though emails are generally all given the same visual weight as they arrive in your inbox as an unread block, their contents can be widely varied.
An email can be a single sentence.
An email can be twenty paragraphs. God save me.
An email can have photos, diagrams, videos, or attachments of any kind.
An email can be an interactive, highly designed, masterpiece of a web page.
An email can be a bizarre collage of hot pink Comic Sans in huge type and strange GIFs.
An email can be a string of other forwarded emails so deep you can only read one character at a time on the right edge of the window.
Because an email can be anything, and nobody is confused by that, makes it a very powerful medium.
¹ Can we call email “successful”? I’d say without a doubt we can. More on that later.
I can’t get the idea of email out of my head. I love email. The phrase all good things happen over email rattles through my brain. As a fellow who operates several businesses and has a varied and rather complicated career, a surprising amount of it happens right through email.
Every big door that has opened for me started as an email. Every big deal I’ve closed. Every collaboration. Every conference I’ve been invited to. I even have friendships that have started over email.
Email is a big deal. Yet almost everyone I know struggles with it.
That’s what this site is all about. Let’s talk about email. Let’s figure out what’s hard about it and where the struggles
are, so that all the great parts of email shine even brighter. Success in today’s world, in almost any way you want to define that, is going to involve you being good at email. So let’s get good at email.
A quick intro of myself.
You might know me from some other projects I work on. Web design and development is the basis of my career. I’m a co-founder of CodePen, a social coding environment for front-end designers and developers. I run CSS-Tricks, a site all about web design and development. I also have a podcast called ShopTalk Show where I talk about those things with Dave Rupert.
Another thing I do, like all of you, is a lot of
email. I plan to use my own experience as a lens to talk about a lot of this email stuff bouncing around in my head. I also plan to talk to lots of other people on all spectrums of business about email. I’d like to talk to folks who feel like they have a great handle on email and those who feel completely overwhelmed by it or have given up on it. If you have thoughts on all that, get in touch!