Today, I’m going to show you the framework I use for writing incredible emails. This framework was inspired by the lessons that I learned in my photography classes almost 20 years ago.
If you follow this framework, you will write incredible emails…maybe not immediately, but it won’t take too long. Let’s get started, class is in session.
Art and Observation
During undergraduate, my photography professor, Steve Berkowitz was far and away my favorite professor. I took every class that he taught and even attended a summer study abroad in Japan that he was part of. #BestDecisionEver
In most art classes, you’re typically required to create a piece of art, and then present it to the class. In addition to the artwork, you were required to submit an artist’s statement. This was to help people see what the idea and thinking behind the art was. The class would then look at your work and provide feedback known as a critique, or “crit,” for short.
During critiques, Professor Berkowitz would often ask us:
“what do you see, and how does it make you feel?”
I credit this question as being my earliest memory of having thinking and feeling distinguished from one another. In that moment, he didn’t ask us “what do you think about that?” He asked how it made us feel.
We looked at the work and considered how it made us feel. We read the artist’s statement, and would think about the interplay between the art and the artist’s intent.
These critiques along with studying the work of other prominent artists, encouraged us to investigate our experience of the art. In these classes, I learned a lot about art and observation, and how the two are directly intertwined.
- It is difficult to make great art without a unique way of observing things.
- At the same time, having a unique way of observing things is, in and of itself, a form of art.
- Appreciating art is about first observing the art, and then further observing how it makes you feel and what it makes you think.
- Finally, your appreciation for art, as well as your capacity to appreciate art, grows over time as you observe other art as well as the world around you. This foundation of understanding art allows you to later appreciate intertextual references in other artwork. As a simple example, when you see a movie make a reference to a current event, you are experiencing the movie differently than someone who is unaware of the current event. The more you observe, the more nuanced your understanding of art can become.
Art and Science
What is the difference between art and science, and is there a place where the two intersect?
For instance, if you study the emotional response to art, and then experiment until you can reliably replicate the results, is it now Science?
If you understand the laws of human nature including the observable, repeatable methods of influence and persuasion, but arrive at those destinations through genuine emotion and creativity, is it now Art?
I don’t have answers to these questions, nor am I convinced there is a single answer…but, I do like to think about it. While we often think of Art as warm and subjective and Science being cold and objective, I’m not so sure it’s that cut and dry.
Art and Creation
You’ve probably heard of the concept of minimum viable product.
For the uninitiated, Minimum Viable Product (“MVP”) is a method of bringing a product to market quickly by including only the most important features. The point is typically to introduce the proof of concept as a means of attracting investors to help fund the bigger vision. You are encouraged to do the bare minimum with the intention of adding the other features later. The priority is to place intense focus on the minimum number of features required to make something work as required.
In the world of art, minimalism could be considered a form of minimum viable product.
MVP has become such a popular idea, that it has infiltrated many other areas of business and life beyond product launches. There is, however, an important distinction between minimalist art and minimum viable product design. Similarly, there is an important distinction between doing your job and seeing your work as art and science.
Minimum vs Maximum
Consider the Japanese art of flower arrangement Ikebana. Many of the arrangements have just a single flower. However, in these minimalist flower arrangements, every single aspect is carefully considered to evoke an emotional response and convey meaning. The shape of the pot, the color of the flower(s), and even the height and thickness of other stalks, leaves, or decorations are components that are carefully considered as part of the arrangement.
The purpose of minimalist artwork is not simply to reduce the complexity of the end result. In fact, to create truly great minimalist art is often far more difficult that creating something representational.
What makes ikebana and great minimalist artwork so striking, is the it can make you feel so much, with something that is seemingly so little.
This is what I would call: The Maximum Viable Emotional Response (“MVER”), and it is the secret of great communication, and hence the secret to great emails.
The Secret To Writing Incredible Emails
When I write an email to someone, I think to myself:
What will they see, and how will it make them feel?
Every single email that I write begins with this question. I must understand what I want them to see, and what I want them to feel. As I go about crafting the email, I am harnessing every ounce of empathy that I have.
During my writing process, I will often write a paragraph or two and then read what I’ve written, attempting to leave my own body and read the email as if I am the other person. From there I’ll continue writing, repeating the writing and reading process again and again until the email is complete.
I’ll obsess over the words that I use, understanding that each word subtly changes how my intentions, thoughts, opinions, and tone are received. I push myself to think about the emotional response any sentence might have on the recipient. I’m conscious of my use of the active tone and the passive voice. I read each sentence looking for ways it could be misinterpreted.
Before I hit send, I go line-by-line through each sentence, making sure that if every word were to be read, that I’d have delivered a piece of writing that accurately reflected my feelings, my tone, my intentions, and my goals for how the reader would react.
This is what I mean by treating your work as art and science. The real difference between product design and art, is that one seeks to do as little as possible in service of moving quickly, whereas the other seeks to produce the maximum possible reaction regardless of how much time it takes to create.
My goal with each email is to create the maximum viable emotional response…like art.
I continuously study the ways in which I can do that…like science.
Back Away From The Edge
My photography teacher once told me that the way to edit a digital photo is to push the levels and saturation until it’s a little too far, then pull back.
This lesson applies to your emails as well.
- If you go too far, you may be seen as pandering.
- If you don’t go far enough, you risk having your intentions misunderstood, or your goals ignored.
The balance exists by pushing your communications to the edge, and then pulling back just a bit.
In dating this is the line between flirting and flattery, and in other aspects of life the point at which confidence and cockiness collide. You won’t know if you’ve gone too far until you’ve gone too far. However, you’ll never know if you’ve gone far enough if you treat your emails like a minimum viable product. Take the time. Put the work into it. Because your work is meaningful, treat it like art.
If you forget where to start, just ask yourself:
What will they see, and how will it make them feel?
Also published on Medium.