Inbox Zero

Write the Right Email Subject Lines

Get your point across.
wrote this on July 21, 2014
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Why are we skimming through our email subject lines before we open them? Why not just roll up our sleeves and open them?

This is a question that I’m sure you found yourselves asking more than once…

When we skim, our ability to reach the right decision regarding which emails to process is impeded for two reasons:

First – we don’t have all the information required to reach the right decision; this makes us hesitant and results in procrastination.

Second – when we skim, we see the amount of work waiting for us, which furthers our hesitation and results in a larger pile of unopened emails.

So, although skimming is an excellent way to browse through an uninteresting book, it’s not a good way to manage your emails if you wish to get things done…

Having said that, let’s get back to reality; you’re going to skim and you’re going to do that a lot!

The reason we skim through emails is because it’s a reflex, a sort of a brain habit.  Our brain is wired to skim through information.  It does so to easily absorb large quantities of information without causing an overload that will impede our ability to make decisions.

So skimming is here to stay and we’re going to skim our email lists… So how can we do so more effectively?

Well, this will require a team effort.  We can all help each other skim faster by sticking to some simple rules that will aid us in processing our emails.

To help everyone do just that, I decided to build a short email subject-line guide that is based on my experience (aka “my 2 cents”).  These guidelines will ensure that the people who receive your email will be able to understand better what’s waiting for them inside the mail which will result in a more effective email skimming and processing.

You are welcome to contribute a few more in the comments below…

1# Specificity Gets Things Done

Messages that are not clear or give their readers a feeling that what they’re about to read is a “time sinkhole” tend to get pushed to the bottom of the reader’s priority list.

Remember, our brain is skimming for easy wins. That’s why the reader needs to identify the task associated with the email in question fast and formulate an answer even before they open the email.

2# Use Urgency Levels Wisely

You might think that you need questions answered to just about anything fast.  However, it’s quite a dangerous practice that might even do more harm than good.

Marking an email as “URGENT” needs to be done in moderation because nobody likes stress, and if you’re the one spreading that stress, nobody is going to like you.

Furthermore, stressing your intended reader to open your email can result in quite the opposite.  Unconsciously, urgent is scary, and no one wants to confront fears in the inbox. Try to think about urgency in terms of what effect it will have on the user and if it will help the recipient prioritize HIS work.

Urgency should be only used when there is a real need i.e. deadlines.  Furthermore, bombarding your recipients with red flags and all caps “URGENT” messages in the subject line will dull the edge of the point you’re trying to push through (or as my wife calls it “too much effect kills the effect.”)

3# Ask Questions

Since we all have opinions, asking questions and putting question marks in the title will focus the reply you’ll get.  It will help your recipients understand what you want from them and follow through with relevant answers before they even open your email.

Focus on a short and sweet question.  Although it might sound more rational to you to list all your questions in one email, the length of the email you write has an effect on its probability to get answered fast (see below).

4# Short Is Sweet, Long Is Sweat

Our mind fears long engagements.  As a result, a long subject line will make your recipient hesitant and they won’t open them/ push them to the last minute. The shorter it is, the more likely it’ll get opened.  Try to skimp on the amount of characters you insert into the subject without losing the meaning of the email.

Subject lines should be around 28-39 characters long but the sweet spot (according to email marketing surveys that show email open rates) are around 4-15. Of course, you can’t always be brief, it’s impossible. But always think twice before sending a long subject line.

5# Be Friendly and Funny

No one likes a party pooper.  If you’ll make working with you enjoyable and funny; the intended recipients will open your message while skimming more enthusiastically.

When readers expect to read something light hearted, they tend to be more relaxed and, as a result, process what you’re sending their way with cheer. Work can be fun when you add a bit of a personal touch.

Tell me if you have additional ideas that will help other people to skim and process their emails more effectively, until we meet again!

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