I recently gave a presentation about effective email at CalTech. A staff member told me he had written an email to an inventor and gotten no reply. A few days later, he wrote again. Still no reply. He was starting to feel peeved at the lack of response. Then the inventor’s assistant called him and explained that the inventor was on the Space Shuttle and was unable to respond to emails. He was not on the planet. That’s what I call a good excuse for not responding to an email Email1and1. However, many of us write emails to people who are on the planet, and still get no reply. How can we generate more responses to our emails?
Here is how the Three Ps work in subject lines. If your purpose is to request action, write “Action Requested” in the subject line; if you do not do so, the reader might not read far enough into the email to realize that something is being asked of him. You can also address the “hot buttons” of your reader. For example, if your staff member had an uncomfortable conversation with a client and needs to speak to you, she could write the subject line, “Need to speak with you,” and you might not respond immediately. However, if she writes, “Client retention issue: Need to talk to you,” you will probably pick up the phone immediately, because she touched on a hot button for you. If you choose not to focus on purpose and person, you can simply state the main point: “Tax return enclosed,” “Lunch 5/4 12:30 at Trattoria confirmed.” Using the Three Ps provides a useful framework for thinking about what to put in a subject line.
Be Straightforward and Relevant
To make it even more likely that your subject line will trigger an “open that email” response in your reader, be straightforward and relevant. The subject line is not the place to be cute. Mailchimp analyzed three million emails and found that the most descriptive subject lines were most likely to be opened. You can ask a provocative question, such as “Do you still need help with your mother’s care?” or make a promise, such as “You will start saving money as soon as you return the signed documents to us.” But whatever you write should pertain directly to the content of the message.
Write an Email that the Receiver will READ
Think about your own experience. If you open an email and see that it is short, gets straight to the point, and makes clear what you are expected to do in response, how do you feel about reading it? Conversely, if you open an email and see that it is several screens long, contains multiple long blocks of text, and has no bullets or subheads to guide you through, how do you respond? Do you rush to read that long email, or are you more likely to put it aside for a quiet moment – which may never come – when you have time to study it?
Get to the Point
Put your main point up front, where people will see it even if they are reading on their phones. Remember that readers may not read to the end. Do you read to the end of every email? Some people do, but in my experience of training hundreds of individuals, many do not. To get your point across, state it early.
Use Plain Language
As George Orwell said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” Your reader may be highly educated and capable of reading difficult text – but she is also busy and distracted. Why set up barriers between you and your reader by using language that is unnecessarily formal or complex? Do not write, “We are in receipt of your letter dated March 1, 2016.” You have received the letter. Do not write, “I am endeavoring to ascertain the date of the accident.” There are many ways to reword that sentence. To make your reader more likely to read through your email, use short, familiar words whenever possible.