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20 Feb

Write clear subject lines in your emails


Datum: 2017-02-20 15:49

When I am on vaca­tion, I rarely answer emails. Since I have my own com­pa­ny, I still like to keep an eye on things”, and have been keep­ing that eye on my inbox dur­ing my time off, but I have real­ly only received a hand­ful of emails dur­ing my entire vaca­tion that were so urgent that I need­ed to respond to them right away.

For exam­ple, I received an email a cou­ple of weeks ago while being on vaca­tion, where the sub­ject line start­ed with Need response urgent­ly:”, fol­lowed by what the email con­cerned. I read it imme­di­ate­ly and replied soon there­after. I did so because the sub­ject line real­ly popped out from all the rest of the unread mail. Part of me got curi­ous of what it was that was so urgent it could not wait, and part of me got a lit­tle afraid that some­thing had gone wrong some­where and need­ed to be attend­ed to with­out delay.

Some emails are more impor­tant than others
Some­times we almost do not even expect to get a reply to an email we send off, since it isn’t real­ly impor­tant. Oth­er times we email some­one to make them aware of some­thing or to get an answer ASAP. And this is when we real­ly want the recip­i­ent to see the email, read it and take appro­pri­ate action.

The sub­ject line is the tool we have at our dis­pos­al to make our email stick out from all oth­er cor­re­spon­dence our recip­i­ent receives daily.

Easy first
Since most of us receive so many emails dur­ing a nor­mal day, it is tempt­ing to start with read­ing and respond­ing to the emails we per­ceive as easy to deal with. Some of it may be junk, oth­ers obvi­ous­ly brief and regard­ing mat­ters which are eas­i­ly dealt with. It becomes eas­i­er to process an email quick­ly if we, before we have even read it, have an idea what it con­cerns and what we most like­ly will have to do with it. A clear­ly phrased sub­ject line is the best way to lead us onto the right track” before even open­ing the email. An email will on the oth­er hand take longer to process and we will feel slight­ly more reluc­tant to open­ing it if the sub­ject line is vague, ambigu­ous, irrel­e­vant and per­haps has to do with a pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tion we have had with the sender. We might then with­out real­ly being aware of it, just move on to the next email instead of open­ing and deal­ing with it.

Read and respond­ed to gives relief
One rea­son that we choose the quick” emails first can be the good feel­ing of relief we get when we tick off” an email by read­ing and pro­cess­ing it, and there­after have few­er unread left in our inbox. The feel­ing itself is like a lit­tle reward for the effort of read­ing and act­ing on the email. In the arti­cle Pre-Cras­ti­na­tion: Has­ten­ing Sub­goal Com­ple­tion at the Expense of Extra Phys­i­cal Effort” (Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence 2014, Vol. 25(7) 1487 – 1496) the researchers Rosen­baum, Gong and Potts demon­strate how strong our urge to choose what­ev­er gives a reward the fastest is — even when this option requires a greater exer­tion of effort. It is over­all an inter­est­ing arti­cle about a quite pecu­liar study. You will find a more acces­si­ble sum­ma­ry here.

So, when it is impor­tant that the recip­i­ent reads the email you sent and acts appro­pri­ate­ly in response to it, for­mu­late a clear sub­ject line.

Do this
Here are three exam­ples of how you can write a clear sub­ject line.

  • Let the sub­ject line be com­posed as a head­line of a news­pa­per. Just as the newspaper’s head­lines are intend­ed to attract read­ers to read the arti­cles with­in, you can phrase your sub­ject lines in such a way that you spark the recipient’s curios­i­ty and he or she will not be able to resist read­ing the email.

  • Add a descrip­tive pre­fix before the actu­al sub­ject line, such as in the email I received which said Need response urgent­ly:…”, or use the clas­sic FYI” (for your infor­ma­tion) and FYA” (for your action).

  • If and when you email some­one again by find­ing an old email you received from the per­son in ques­tion and respond to it, make sure you change the sub­ject line from what­ev­er the old con­ver­sa­tion was about to some­thing that would describe your cur­rent sub­ject mat­ter clear­ly and con­crete­ly. If you keep the three month old sub­ject line (with just an extra Re: in front of the old text), the recip­i­ent might mis­un­der­stand your errand com­plete­ly (since judg­ing by the sub­ject line the con­tent of your email is regard­ing some­thing you fin­ished dis­cussing months ago) and might there­fore not pri­or­i­tize read­ing your email until much lat­er than you would wish them to.

Read and respond­ed to more rapidly
If you make sure to for­mu­late your sub­ject line in a clear and spe­cif­ic way, the chances that your email is read and appro­pri­ate action is tak­en in response to it increas­es, and soon­er than it might oth­er­wise have been as well. You will get the reply you need soon­er, since it becomes clear­er to the recip­i­ent what he or she is expect­ed to do. The recip­i­ent finds it eas­i­er to read and process the email, and your remote con­ver­sa­tion will flow with ease.

What is your way?
What is your best exam­ple of an ide­al sub­ject line? Write a com­ment and tell us. 

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