It could have happened to anyone: Imagine you receive an email with “Update – customer review” in the subject line. You perform a quick skim-read and file it away. A few days later, the sender phones you and asks for your input to the presentation. “What presentation?” you say. It turns out there was a request for input with a tight deadline buried somewhere towards the end of the email.
Tip: A clear, informative headline could have prevented this from happening.
How: For clear headlines, use the 80/20 subject rule when sending email. To do this effectively, you check your subject line just before you send the email to ensure it clarifies at least 80% of the email’s content for your reader(s). In general, a clear subject line will result in quicker responses and less misunderstanding.
"The very best headlines will let the recipient decide the appropriate action for the message without even needing to open it."
Why: People sometimes feel the limited space in the subject line makes them appear blunt by using expressions like “URGENT” or “customer review input needed this Thursday”. Now, think about it for a moment from the recipient’s perspective. Akin newspaper headlines, the subject line helps recipients to decide when and with how much attention to read a message. So with unambiguous - some might say straightforward - headlines, you are really doing your recipients a big favour. The very best headlines will let them decide the appropriate action (FILE / RESPOND / WAIT / BIN) for the message without even needing to open it.
Next: So, when you write your next email, just before you send it, pause and ask yourself whether the headline covers the most important 80% of its content. If not, tweak until it does. Do this a few times and you are likely to find it getting easier pretty quickly.
For messages covering multiple subjects:
- It’s OK for a headline to make that clear, e.g.: “Fire drill next Monday reminder / July office picnic postponed”
- Consider breaking them up in messages by subject to enable recipients to better manage their tasks.
As always, if you’re addressing just one or two people and they are in the same office as yourself, why not consider walking over to their desk or picking up the phone? That may be more effective in ensuring you get the response you are looking for. And most likely you’ll learn a few other things that will benefit you.
If you know someone who can benefit from this tip (co-worker, friend, spouse or former colleague), why not share it with them?
Do you have any great email tips that work for you? Feel free to share them with fellow readers as a comment below.