Considering how many emails most professionals get, you should take careful measures when emailing your colleagues to avoid annoying them and to get what you need.
“Whenever you’re asking for something, it’s also about addressing their needs,” says Amanda Augustine, career expert at professional job-matching service TheLadders. “We know how many emails we all get a day. Being specific and clear is by far the most important thing you can do.”
The email subject line, a field that confuses many people, is the first thing that recipients see and therefore the most important part of an effective work email.
Here are some tips for what to write:
Keep it short. A typical inbox reveals about 60 characters of an email’s subject line, while a mobile phone shows just 25 to 30 characters, says Augustine. And since half of emails are now read on smartphones, according to Dmitri Leonov, a VP at email management service SaneBox, it’s important to get right to the point in about six to eight words. Eliminate any unnecessary formalities like “hello” or “thanks,” and put the most important information at the beginning, in case the subject line gets cut off.
Be clear and specific about the topic of the email. The subject line should communicate exactly what the email is about, so your coworker can prioritise the email’s importance without having to open it. For example, writing “Do you have a sec?” is too vague and doesn’t appropriately respect the recipient’s time, says Augustine, since they will have to open the email or reply to figure out what you want.
Use logical keywords for search and filtering. Most professionals have filters and folders set up to manage their email and probably won’t focus on your message when they first see it, says Leonov. That’s why it’s important to include keywords related to the project or topic of the email that will make it searchable later.
Indicate if you need a response. “People want to know whether they really need to read this now and if they have to respond,” says Augustine. If you need a response, make it clear in the subject line by saying “please reply” or “thoughts needed on X topic.” If not, simply start the line with “Please read,” or tack on “no response needed” or “FYI” to the end.
Set a deadline in the subject line. Especially if you have a lot of information to convey in the email itself, including a deadline right in the subject line exponentially increases the odds that your coworkers will actually respond when you need them to. It also helps the reader prioritise their workload. For example, after the email’s topic, you could say: “Please reply by EOD Friday.”
Don’t start a sentence that you finish in the email’s body. If you begin a thought or question that ends in the email, then the reader is forced to open the email. It’s annoying, and since clarity and being respectful of your coworker’s time is the goal, it’s not very helpful, says Augustine. Consider whether instant message or a quick in-person chat might be a better medium for your question.
Try not to stress the reader out. “Don’t create anxiety,” advises Leonov. Avoid using all caps, which is the digital equivalent of yelling, and categorize emails as low priority unless they’re truly urgent.
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