One of the most acute problems in the way we communicate at work is we are constantly bombarded with emails. Leave your inbox unattended for an hour, and it is likely to get cluttered with new emails and follow-ups on older threads. The obvious solution is sending fewer emails, but even then, depending on your role, you might find yourself struggling with reviewing dozens of messages a day, trying to decide whether they are relevant to you or not, what is expected of you, and how urgent it is.
Hopefully, we will be able to answer these questions by reading the body of the emails (unfortunately, even this should not be taken for granted). But reading each email to decide if it is urgent or does someone expect us to do something about it is very costly. We need an easier (cheaper) way to filter and prioritize our emails quickly. Well, that’s exactly the purpose of the email’s Subject.
A well-designed Subject can help the recipient make a quick decision: whether they need to read the email and when. An effective email Subject will allow the recipient to understand the impact of the message even before reading its body. In some sense, the Subject of an email could be more important than its content.
Here are three guidelines to keep in mind if you wish to phrase the perfect email Subject.
If you want your email Subject to be effective, it must be descriptive. We tend to use generic or vague Subjects because they are shorter and more familiar, but that’s exactly where they fail.
Subjects like “Status Report,” “Call for Action,” or “Important Update” don’t help the recipient get a sense of what’s inside the email. No one can guess what the email is about and, more importantly, whether it is relevant to them. When you have dozens of such emails in your inbox, you have only two options: read them or ignore them. None of these options is effective.
A descriptive Subject should be a complete sentence. Not a phrase, a noun, or a verb. One whole sentence that captures the essence of the email’s content. Anyone reading this sentence should have a very clear sense of whether they should open the email and read it and how urgent it is (without writing “URGENT,” or “MUST READ” in the Subject).
Two important elements of a descriptive Subject are the Initiative and the Mission.
The Initiative: Action Oriented
The most important aspect you can capture in the email’s subject is what you expect to happen after the email is read. When you capture the desired action in the Subject, the recipients can understand whether the email is relevant and what exactly is expected of them — and all that before even reading the first words of the content.
Consider, for example, this Subject: “23 Bugs Must be Resolved by the End of the Week.” Unlike the generic “Status Report,” this Subject captures precisely what has to be done. As the recipient of this email, I get a pretty good sense of whether the content of the email is relevant and whether I am expected to do something following this email.
Phrasing an action-oriented Subject might be tricky. Many of our emails address multiple issues and are sent to many people. How can we capture a concrete action when each recipient is expected to do something different? If you struggle with phrasing a concrete, action-oriented Subject, it is a good indication that your email is not focused enough.
Covering multiple issues in a single email and sending it to many people might seem like an effective approach from the perspective of the sender, but for the recipient, it is usually a considerable overhead. Shorter emails, each focused on one action and sent to the people expected to perform that action, are much more effective.
By aiming for a concrete, descriptive, action-oriented Subject, we can craft more effective emails with a real business-oriented value.
The Mission: Providing Context
An action-oriented Subject is a huge improvement in terms of filtering and prioritizing emails and crafting more focused messages. But one more element can make the Subject even better: stating the context.
Each task, and therefore each workplace interaction, must be associated with a grander, overarching mission. If we don’t know what mission we promote, it is impossible to consider the actions we take effective. Value is always derived from a grander goal.
Adding the mission — the context of the Initiative — to the email’s subject will help the readers understand why the expected actions are important. It will provide another aspect the recipient can use to prioritize the email (or challenge the action, which is no less critical).
A Subject such as “23 Bugs Must be Resolved by the End of the Week to Meet the Project’s Quality Targets” provides the motivation for the requested action and can help the recipient consider this request against other potentially conflicting tasks and missions.
A description, action- and mission-oriented Subject might initially seem too lengthy. When such email Subjects become the norm, it is easy to appreciate the extra information encapsulated in them. When you can make a priority call on the order of reading and addressing your emails before you open them, you save time and can focus on the things that matter most.