When faced with a flood of email in your inbox, how do you decide what’s
worth looking at? What are the criteria you use to decide where to spend your
I don’t know about you, but I actually look at the Subject field first.
Often before I even look at who the email is from.
Now, I can almost hear many of you already saying “Yeah, subject line, big
deal. Whatever. It’s not that important.”
You are so wrong.
My guess is that even you look at the subject of the message (before or
after seeing who it’s from) before you do anything. I’ll bet you immediately
look at anything that sounds important, on-topic or relevant to your situation,
and skip the rest – either for later, or for “when I get around to it”, which
is really just another way of saying “never”.
Now imagine you’re trying to get your email read by someone who’s incredibly
busy, and suffering form email overload because they haven’t been reading
Taming Email. What are they going to
pay attention to first? The email whose subject line tells them clearly what
the message is about.
It only makes sense.
It’s a classic situation – you want your email to be read. You believe it’s
important, and you want the recipient to pay attention. Why on earth would you
have a Subject that says “Your email”. Or “Help”. Or “Important”. Or any of a
number of generic, forgettable and ultimately meaningless phrases.
Or worse yet – no subject at all! (Something I see surprisingly often.)
A good subject is like the title of a report, or the title of a chapter in a
book; it describes what follows. It describes the contents of the message in
such a way that the recipient can quickly and easily determine what the email
is about. Without opening the email.
The subject is a decision tool for the recipient. By describing what this
email is about, you’re doing your recipient – who’s probably just as busy as
you are – a huge favor. With one look, one glance, he or she can see what your
message is about, and act accordingly.
I mean, really, which would you open first? “Subject: News” or “Subject: New
Year-End Bonus Structure”?
A good subject is short, yet information packed. Notice that while “Subject:
New Year-End Bonus Structure” is short – just 5 words – it carries quite a
message! People getting that message will know exactly what to expect
inside after having only glanced at the subject line in their inboxes.
On some occasions the subject can be the entire message. There’s nothing at
all wrong with that, if appropriate, and again – if short. “Subject: Meet for
lunch at McDonalds 12:30 PM Tuesday [eom]” is a great subject, and a great
message. It’s almost the equivalent of a text message on your phone or pager.
It’s informative and complete. The “[eom]” at the end? That’s a shorthand that
makes the subject even more informative. It stands for “End Of Message”, and
lets the recipient know that they don’t even have to open the email –
everything they need to know is in the subject line.
A good subject reflects the contents of its email message. That means that
if the topic of discussion changes, so should the subject. This
particularly true of email discussion lists where conversations often start on
one topic, and then branch off on to other things. There’s nothing worse than
opening an email that you think is about “New Year-End Bonus Structure”, only
to find that the discussion has moved on to News Year’s eve party planning or
other topics completely unrelated to what’s stated in the subject.
One approach that I really like is the use of the word “was” in the subject
line. For example, let’s say that a discussion list was, in fact, talking about
the “New Year-End Bonus Structure”, and as part of that discussion, someone
decided it would be a fine time to ask everyone what their year-end plans were.
A great way to “branch” the discussion would be a subject like
Subject: New Years Party Plans (was: New Year-End Bonus Structure)
This allows everyone reading the discussion to know two things: this email
resulted from the discussion about the bonus structure that they were
participating in, or not, but it’s now about something else. The
subject of the discussion has been changed, hence the subject of the email has
been changed to reflect that.
Prove My Point
If you’ve been getting any spam at all lately (and who hasn’t), you’ll
notice that spammers have learned what I’ve been talking about here. A lot of
spam has some very engaging, though misleading, subject lines. Why? They know
that a good subject line means more people will open the mail.
So naturally, a subject line isn’t the only thing we look at before acting
on email. That’s why I look at who the mail was from, as well. (And also, in
part, why I make extensive use of Message Rules to pre-organize my incoming
Why Do So
Many Subjects Suck?
My theory is that most people focus first on their message – that’s where
they pour their energy, heart and soul. The subject is simply an after-thought
that’s even sometimes forgotten completely.
In reality, they have their priorities reversed. The most perfectly written
email message is totally wasted if the recipient doesn’t read it. Or reads it
I mentioned that the subject line is a decision tool for the recipient, and
that it is. But it’s also a tool for the sender – a tool of influence. A tool
that, if used properly can help get your message read, read more quickly, and
can generally help you communicate more effectively in email.