My introduction to email came in 1980 when I joined Software Arts, the inventors of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. We all had VT100 terminals on our desks that were tied into a Prime minicomputer. The Prime was used for software development as well as for our internal email system. I quickly became a heavy user of email, as was everyone else in the company. We had a connection to the ArpaNet, the precursor to the Internet, and I could have sent email to scientists and researchers around the country, who were the only users of ArpaNet, but I didn’t know any of them!
Email has a lot of advantages, but for me it had several specific ones:
- It enabled me to communicate asynchronously with everyone in our company as well as with our distributor Personal Software, located two time zones away. Trying to get people together for a meeting wasn’t easy and often was totally unnecessary. Email worked well as a one-to-one and one-to-many communications medium.
- I hate making phone calls. People’s voices didn’t sound quite right, as the phone company restricts the bandwidth of the telecom system in order to increase capacity. And you never know if someone is paying attention or not while talking to you. I could go on but everyone is familiar with the hassles of phone tag and the annoyance of voicemail
- It served as a record of my work and a to do list. Email wasn’t designed to do either, but by putting most work related communications into a written form I could keep track of what people “owed” me and vice versa.
- It allowed me to work from home and feed my work addiction by enabling me to send and read emails every hour of the day or night.
Even today with Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal, and dozens of competitors to plain old email, I’m still a heavy user. But neither email, nor phone calls, is a high bandwidth communications channel. Face-to-face or F2F is by far the highest bandwidth channel. I was reminded of this today when reading the New York Times article Digital Privacy Is a Big Concern in Europe. For This Reporter, Too, subtitled When the investigative journalist Matt Apuzzo moved from Washington to Brussels, he noticed that distrust had a different focus. And he adjusted some of his own tech tools. This story is part of a series that The New York Times runs about how journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives. I read three newspapers every day: The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. I have great respect and admiration for journalists. But beyond that I believe that mentors need to act like investigative journalists themselves. We need to find out what’s the story behind a founder’s presentation. Asking the right questions at the right time is one of the core skills of both journalists and mentors. And, of course, communicating with our mentees outside of our F2F meetings is important.
What are the most important tech tools for you as an investigative journalist?
Tech is great, but there’s no substitute for personal relationships. I prefer face-to-face conversations whenever possible, and I almost never record them. I use small, discreet notebooks like the Moleskine pocket journal. A lot of my interviews are over coffee, drinks or meals, and I want something as unobtrusive as possible at the table. I love the feel of the Rhodia pocket webnotebook, but let’s be honest: I’m not picky. Some of the best, most surprising nuggets of information have been scribbled on napkins or the backs of envelopes or tapped in text messages to myself.
Face to face communications is considered so important by the MIT Venture Mentoring Service that VMS does not support remote mentoring of any kind. Aside from occasionally accommodating mentors who may be traveling or otherwise not able to come in to MIT by using a speaker phone, the emphasis is always in meeting founders F2F and in teams of mentors. Why is face to face so powerful in this technology mediated age? For one thing we all have grown up talking to those around us. We had to learn how to use the telephone and then the computer and smartphone. But F2F also provides a much broader field of view than typical video conferencing tools. Facebooks’ new Portal uses AI to move it’s camera to follow the person talking. While I haven’t tried this, I’m sure it’s an improvement on Skype or Zoom. But sometimes when meeting with a team of founders I like to look at the members of the team who aren’t speaking. As a mentor you can learn a lot about team dynamics by watching the team while one of them is talking. Are they paying attention? Are they leaning in, which demonstrates interest, or leaning back which demonstrates disengagement or even boredom? Do they have their arms crossed, which often signals anger or disagreement? Are they looking at their phone rather than at the people in the meeting? These are important questions which are impossible or hard to answer during a phone call or video conference.
Humor is important in all human relations, but even more so for founders, who are often very stressed out by the rigors of startup life. I find it’s a lot easier to crack a joke during an inn-person meeting than over the phone. And most of us know that email is the worst medium for humor. Without the nuances of vocal tone and inflection and non-verbal communications, humor often falls flat, or worse yet, can be misinterpreted and even come across as offensive.
I also find it’s a lot easier to start off a meeting with non-business chat, which helps build personal relationships amongst mentor teams and with founders, than using a video call. Perhaps it’s because none of us have grown up with video calling, but we seem to see it as a more formal and constrained medium. Perhaps millennials and Generation Z don’t have this issue.
For me the goal of a mentor meeting is conversation, not presentation. So I don’t encourage founders to start off meetings with their decks. Conversations help build trust, which is vital in a mentor-mentee relationship. And I often coach founders to treat sales calls as conversations, dialogs, not monologs nor presentations. We learn a lot by listening; we learn little while talking.
Of course there are drawback to any medium and F2F is no exception. People can talk over each other, they can mumble, they can pontificate, they can wander off the subject. Having an agenda, objectives, and structuring the meeting can help avoid these problems.
And speaking of problems, I learned the hard way that problems need to be solved face to face. While it’s far easier and faster to send an email doing so can make a problem worse, not better. If the person you need to communicate with is out of town then pick up the phone, even if making phone calls seems foreign to you. Problem solving needs real time communications, and though text messaging is real time it is a sparse medium unlike the rich medium of face to face meetings.
So when you need to communicate, choose your channel wisely. But keep in mind Times reporter Matt Apuzzo’s words: Tech is great, but there’s no substitute for personal relationships.