When we talk about how to get better at email, we tend to dwell in the body text, which, as we've learned, needs to be clearly purposeful, easy to reply to, and, ideally, no more than five sentences long. But focusing on the body text neglects the way you get into the message—the subject line.
Writing at Asian Efficiency, Thanh Pham has collected a handful of best practices for sharpening our subject lines. Let's check 'em out.
Okay, a quick exercise in email-related design thinking: After someone receives your message and becomes acquainted with the information inside, how will that person recall it? No, you can't expect them to memorize your missive—but you can expect them to search.
Which is why it's wise to have a keyword-rich subject line. In the same way that websites (and publishers) optimize for being readily found via search, an important email can have a little search engine optimization. In this way, you can turn your inbox into a database—and if you share the keyword-y practice with your team, you can all build data literacy.
Some examples subject lines, courtesy of Pham:
Good: Dinner party at Stacy's
Good: TPS Report for Q2
As we know from the research on how productive habits get formed, the more specific we are with tasks, the easier it is to complete them. For example, "eat a salad for lunch three times a week" works better than "eat healthier."
We can add that sentiment of specificity to the subject lines at hand: The more precise we get with describing tasks, the quicker they'll get done—in theory.
Again, Pham has an example:
Bad: August report
Good: Revise August report for corrections per Monday's meeting
Prefixes, acronyms, and abbreviations can be super useful as long as everyone knows what they're referring to—as anyone who was perplexed by why the World Wildlife Federation was so into professional wrestling (also the WWF) will tell you.
Here are three ready-to-implement case studies:
Urgent: Use this when something needs to be read (and replied to) immediately. But be careful—mark too many messages this way and you could be the outbox that cried wolf.
EOM: Emails often act as clunky text messages, ready to be buried within an ever-expanding inbox. It's wise, then, to make it easier on your reader by placing an EOM (End of Message) at the end of your subject line. For instance, instead of writing "The 4 p.m. meeting's now at 5 p.m.," write "The 4 p.m. meeting's now at 5 p.m. (EOM)." This makes everything clearer for everybody.
NRN: When no reply is needed, make that clear, for instance, when you missed your train or had to make a double commute from your girlfriend's place to yours to the office or had a random encounter with a pack of hungry wolves on your walk to work. In that case, just email your colleagues, "Running 15 minutes late; start without me. NRN." Or if the worse happens and you're, quite inexplicably, still able to type: "Can't make meeting; eaten by wolves. NRN."
Hat tip: Asian Efficiency