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20 Feb

Write clear subject lines in your emails


Date: 2017-02-20 15:49 Comments: 0 st

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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