Bill and Melinda Gates Got a Satirical Letter From an Utter Genius

Tim Denning
Image Credit: Nathan Congleton/Getty Images

Satire articles rarely teach us anything.

I avoid reading most satire content as a writer. But a satire letter to Bill and Melinda Gates after their public divorce, published in the New Yorker, honestly left me speechless. You read it and think, “I’ve felt like that too.”

Author and podcaster Tim Ferriss read the same article by John Kenney and said in his newsletter:

“The funniest part — and least funny part — is how many emails I actually receive that are some version of this.”

I felt the same way. I get bizarre emails every day like the one Bill and Melinda Gates got. One email I got today had some brilliant advice for me about Primal States versus Powerful States. Then the email went straight into pitching me life coaching I didn’t ask for. I felt abused by words. It’s an odd feeling.

Here’s what you can learn from the letter addressed to Bill and Melinda Gates. The future emails you send will be better for it.

Biggest mistake: Pretending to care

“I don’t want to rush things with either of you. I just want to say: I’m here, I’m ready, I’m open and vulnerable and a man who wants to love another man or another woman and just be. Money, no money, whatever. Write back soon.”

Let’s start with the end of the letter. This is where all the problems start — when you pretend to care and don’t, and simply want to disguise your ask as caring. It fools almost nobody.

Bill and Melinda have gone through a public divorce. No amount of cold-email care is going to matter right now.

Rather than pretend to care, be genuine in emails. Don’t disguise an ‘ask’ as ‘care’ when you hardly know the person. It’s a turnoff, and it gets very few responses. People can feel the care in the words you type.

Bringing up a business transaction in the first email

This is creepy.

“Also, I don’t even want to broach money at this point in our relationship. By ‘relationship’ I mean me reaching out to either of you for what I think could be something really honest and meaningful.
So let’s take the whole money thing off the table. Shoo. It’s gone.”

In the second paragraph of the letter, John gets straight to bringing up money but pretends it’s not the focus. He's not fooling anyone.

A business transaction feels inhumane. People rarely say yes in the first email to a hidden ask to do business. Nope. People respond via email to emotions, feelings, and short stories.

Dropping the phrase “no pressure”

“I hate camping but would go if you wanted to. No pressure. (Again, this would be on me. The camping fees, I mean. Maybe we could split the food and beer?)”

Secret: “No pressure” means pressure.

Saying no pressure is requesting a decision right away which is inherently stressful to the person getting the email. You’re better off throwing a few ideas into an email and seeing what sticks.

Ideas are relaxed.
Ideas show open-mindedness — a communication superpower.

Personal questions when there is zero relationship

“Microsoft did well, didn’t it? Did you know Steve Jobs while you were there, or is Apple a different company? I like Apple.”

This quote demonstrates a lack of research. Asking Bill Gates about Apple is asking for trouble. It’s worth spending the time to understand someone a little before you cold email them. That way you’ll avoid saying something stupid.

A personal question can accidentally be offensive, too.

When you don’t know someone it’s weird to start asking about their sex life or what size underwear they wear. In fact, it’s probably never appropriate to ask questions like that via email.

Unsolicited assumptions

Assumptions are a curse. Assuming someone is interested in what you have to offer is egotistical. They may be fine where they’re at in life, or not needing the touch of your magic problem-solving wand.

Don’t assume. Start a conversation.
Then ask questions to listen (learn), not brag.

Humor can make you look overly nervous

When I read this letter it made me feel nervous. The writer clearly is nervous about how to talk to reaaallly famous people like Bill and Melinda Gates. The humor he uses amplifies those nerves.

Save lots of jokes for people you get to know after many email exchanges.

Too long. Didn’t read.

Most emails are too long. Getting to the point is crucial.

That’s why it’s not a good idea to send the first draft of your email. Let the email sit in your drafts folder if it’s an important request. Let the email marinate. Get feedback from friends or family, especially if you’re emailing Bill and Melinda Gates.

With the volume of emails we all get, those who get to the point rise to the top. Getting to the point looks like three short, succinct paragraphs containing no more than three sentences in each.

Two rules for managing email you can steal

Understand email psychology, and use these two rules to get back more hours from inbox time thieves.

Rule #1 — Ignore people who ask for something in the first email

That’s my first rule. If you ask for anything in the first email, the response rate goes down automatically by precisely 98%.

Straight asks feel like being slapped in the face.

Rule #2 — See if they follow up

I measured the follow-up on emails I get that have an ask. It’s less than 5%. And the ones who follow up (typically PR companies) use generic that make me feel like a doormat.

No follow-up means the email is an after-thought, not a genuine ask. Don’t spend your days responding to poorly considered thoughts that aren’t worth the energy or time to follow up at least once.

Short tips to rapidly increase responses to your emails

  • Offer up a little vulnerability first. Vulnerability is a magnet. It shows people who you are. Don’t overdo it. Here’s how I think about it: Does this email make me feel slightly uncomfortable? If yes, it contains the right level of vulnerability.
  • Don’t auto-ask for time in a person’s calendar who has never replied to one of your emails. They will rarely give it to you.
  • Focus on what you have in common based on intelligent research.
  • Show a ridiculous level of self-awareness. Put yourself in the email responder’s shoes.
  • Give them a get-out-of-jail clause. “If you can’t respond or this is terrible timing then there is no obligation to reply. I understand. A response is a delight, not an expectation.”
  • Show you quietly respect their time.
  • Dare to follow up on your email in 7–10 days’ time. Non-spammy persistence is delightful to humans.
  • Don’t ask for anything in the first email. Read that again.

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