Why email doesn't work: A letter from Mark Twain explains

By referral of my friend, Phil Terry of Creative Good, I am reading The Americanization of Edward Bok. I double Phil’s recommendation for anyone that wants to read about an inspirational life from very early years; to understand an entrepreneurial mind from the late 1800s; and to learn a bit about publishing during this time. This man was a friend and confidant to nearly every famous author of this time, not to mention all of the US Presidents and other statesmen. An engaging read.

But, what was that about Mark Twain? It is such a coincidence that I read a passage in the book about Mark Twain’s response to an interview by Mr. Bok. Mr. Bok had secured an interview with the notoriously interview-shy Mr. Twain. He sent the written interview to Mr. Twain for his approval. The response (only the first two paragraphs included, the rest is just as brilliant):

My Dear Mr. Bok:

No, no — it is like most interviews, pure twaddle, and valueless.

For several quite plain and simple reasons, an “interview” must, as a rule, be an absurdity. And chiefly for this reason: it is an attempt to use a boat on land, or a wagon on water, to speak figuratively. Spoken speech is one thing, written speech is quite another. Print is a proper vehicle for the latter, but it isn’t for the former. The moment “talk” is put into print you recognize that it is not what is was when you heard it; you perceive that an immense something has disappeared from it. That is its soul. You have nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands. Color, play of feature, the varying modulations of voice, the laugh, the smile, the informing inflections, everything that gave that body warmth, grace, friendliness, and charm, and commended it to your affection, or at least to your tolerance, is gone, and nothing is left, but a pallid, stiff, and repulsive cadaver.

That paragraph, written by a brilliant author, I hope gives you an idea of what it takes to write versus talk. The problem… email is talk in “printed” form. Most often you miss everything that Mr. Twain calls out, and therein lies the problem.

I read this passage on the plane on Saturday, as I had just had three conversations the past week with people that were emailing problems back and forth and not picking up the phone. This included senior managers who weren’t talking to their team members regularly, but thought it was OK because they were emailing them daily. There is immense value in talking to someone, and it is worth your time. If you think that email takes less time, you are not spending the time writing that the issues deserve.

Before you hit send on an important, even semi-important, email, ask yourself, are you using a wagon on water? If the answer is possibly, then pick up the phone or stand up from your chair and walk a few cubes down… start to talk.

I have a dizzying array of meetings each week. Not all of them are great. The best ones have agendas prepared in advance (something I request of every meeting I’m in) and send to me at least a day before the meeting. This allows me time to think through what is needed and prepare some thoughts and responses. I would not trade that dizzyness for more emails. Meeting with team members gives me more energy than an email could, because of the soul that Mr. Twain points out comes across in a talk.

If you are a manager, have regular one-on-ones with your team members. If you find yourself with nothing to say in those meetings, then you are missing the point, and you and your team member need to prepare for those meetings more. Spend time in advance reviewing emails sent since the last meeting and thinking about goals, then you will have plenty to discuss.

What’s on my shirt today?

email is cheap
talk is valuable

P.S. Creative Good is a wonderful organization. If you don’t know them, you should.

4 thoughts on “Why email doesn't work: A letter from Mark Twain explains

  1. I read lots of anti-meeting sentiment in time management blogs… I think if folks prepared the way you describe then meetings would be a much more powerful force. Great quote from Twain – what a writer!

    G

  2. I just got back from Intuit’s Fast Path leadership training… what an eye opener. I’ve always been most comfortable with email conversations… but you are absolutely right: for leaders, nothing beats a real conversation. Now if I could just do that myself…🙂

  3. Garrett, most people just don’t take the time, and it is tempting not to do it. I know.

    Matt, so happy to hear you had a great FP experience. It is a terrific program. Schedule time to talk.😉

    Phil, you are a great communicator. I always love our talks!

    And wow, I have so much respect for Twain. That’s writing.

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