Episode 42: August 23, 2010
by Stever Robbins, author of Get-It Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More
Wow! A friend just told me he had sent me the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything in an e-mail message. I rushed to open the message, but when I got to my inbox, there were 3,916 unread messages. “What was the subject line?” I asked him by phone. “Open this,” he replied.
Oh. Yeah. That e-mail. The one I deleted because I had no idea what it was. “Open this” sounded a bit too much like the bottle labeled “drink me” from Alice in Wonderland. Maybe Lewis Carrol would just toss down anything that said “drink me,” but I read the ingredients. If it doesn’t contain aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester, it’s not going anywhere near my mouth
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E-mail Subject Lines are for the Reader's Benefit
But don’t you just hate vapid e-mail subject lines? Stuff like: “you just HAVE to read this” or “important” or “here’s the file.” You don’t know what they are, so you have to open them to find out if they’re important. Then if they are, you save them but can never find them again because you don’t know if “great idea for kids” is a message about your company’s new theme park, or an ad for that blackmarket adoption service you were considering. Your subject line is the first thing people see. Based on that one line, they decide whether your message is relevant. Help them decide! This is especially important if your message is going out to a big group, because you don’t necessarily know how important it is to each person. The subject line is your chance to give them a chance to filter out and read just the most important communications.
Subject Lines Aren't Conversation
Some people—and I’m sure you would never do this—use the subject line as if they were starting a face-to-face conversation. And since most of them couldn’t strike up a face-to-face conversation if their life depended on it, let’s just say their subject lines . . . suck. They write things like “Hi!” or “Hello!” or “What’s up?” Please, spare me. Spare us all. E-mail is not a conversation. If you want to talk, pick up the phone or visit in person. Take the time to use a real subject line.
Mostly, people use the subject line to describe the message. If they’re scheduling a meeting (oh, boy, meetings! I just love meeting. No, I don’t, I hate meetings). If they’re scheduling a meeting, they use the subject line, “Staff meeting.” If they’re announcing the meeting is in a new room, they use the subject line, “Staff meeting.” If they’re sending out the agenda for the meeting, they use the subject line “Staff meeting.” With all this staff, I’m thinking we have a staff infection.
Write a Good E-mail Subject Line by Summarizing Your Message
Instead of using the subject line to describe the message, use it to summarize. Put as much relevant info as possible in the subject, so your recipient can quickly judge whether they need to open the message. Maybe you can give them all the relevant info in the one line. Then when they’re done scanning, they’re also done reading!
When you schedule your beloved staff meeting, the subject line could be, “Saturday staff meeting, unpaid, 7 a.m., main headquarters.” Doesn’t it make you warm and fuzzy just to think about it? For the change of locale, the subject could be, “Saturday 7 a.m. staff meeting moved to office on far side of town.” See? It just gets better. No need to open the message. And the agenda message subject line could say, “Staff meeting agenda: why is morale so low? Full agenda enclosed.” Of course, the agenda was created in Acrobat 9, and the IT department only installed Acrobat 5 on your machine . . . why is morale so low?
If your subject line contains the entire message, you might want to consider writing <EOM> at the end of the line so people know it's the End-Of-Message.
Next time you touch fingers to keyboard to blast out that oh-so-important e-mail, help your readers by summarizing the message in the subject line. They can delete the message without reading it, which makes them happy, and you get the satisfaction of believing that there was more substance to your message than the 13-word summary, which was actually all you should have written in the first place.
How can you use this system if you're responding to someone else's e-mail, you ask? Check out my Quick Tip on When to Change an E-mail Subject Line to find out.
This is Stever Robbins. I’m proud to announce my audio program You Are Not Your Inbox: Overcoming E-mail Overload. It’s jam-packed with everything in the world you need to know about e-mail, and then some. Check it out at: http://YouAreNotYourInbox.com. .
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!