E-mail: Say It in the Subject Line

by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

The subject line is the most important piece of information in an e-mail message. It's the first and only hint as to what your message is about—unlike a letter, where the body is in full view. There are people who get hundreds of e-mail messages a day, and they can't possibly read them all. So, if your subject line doesn't seduce your readers, they may never open your message. If you look down the subject line column of your inbox, perhaps you see subjects like those below that give you absolutely no information and no reason to read the message:

  1. Meeting
  2. Two things
  3. Hi
  4. Something else
  5. Can you help me?

Create a Compelling Subject Line

I'm sure you've read USA Today. The front page has a column called "Newsline" that gives informative headlines of what's happening around the world. You can read the headlines and get a snapshot of major stories. Wouldn't it be useful to read the subject column of your inbox and get that same level of information? Always include in your subject line a key piece of information so your reader can get the gist of your message at a glance. Notice the following pairs of subject lines and how much more information appears in the line with the checkmark:

  1. 15% profit expected for Q2 Profit report
  2. We were awarded Waller project for $2.5 million Waller project
  3. MIS: Urgent meeting May 20 @ 2 PM in Blue Room MIS Meeting

Think about the Benefit to Your Readers

When you craft your subject line, think about why your readers should want to open your message. Make the payoff clear. Will your readers learn some valuable industry news? Will your readers get a great deal? Will your readers save time or money? And never be misleading. If your e-mail is about a computer product, don't pretend in the subject line that you have free tickets to the World Series.

Deliver Your Message in the Subject Line

When you can, deliver your message as the subject line and don't bother writing in the text box. For example, you may write, "I'll finish the report tomorrow morning —SLR," and not even deal with the text box. When you put your initials at the end of the message, your readers get to know that the message "is" the subject line. You can also use -END or -EOM, for "end of message." I don't recommend this type of electronic shorthand when you write to someone you don't know. It's for colleagues you communicate with regularly. However, you should always use a descriptive subject line, even when you write in the text box.

Following is a series of e-mail subject lines I exchanged with a colleague. We rescheduled a meeting, and neither of us ever had to open the text box. (I usually don't recommend scheduling appointments via e-mail because of the back and forth. However, this colleague doesn't respond to voice messages but checks her e-mail a gazillion times a day.)

  1. Mon. doesn't work. How's Tues? —SLR
  2. Tues. is NG. How's Wed? —MN
  3. Wed. is fine. —SLR
  4. See you Wed. at 3:15 —MN

Note:

When you first start sending subject lines without writing in the text box, most people will "get it" right away and start to respond in the same manner. A few, however, may let you know that they "didn't get your message." You can merely tell them that you try to save your readers time and deliver the message in the subject line when you can. They, too, will start responding with this electronic shorthand.

Change the Subject Line When Replying to a Message

When you reply to someone's message, change the subject line. To maintain continuity in a stream of messages, use the key word in the subject line and add the change to the message. For example: Billing: To be discussed at April mtg.

My colleague, James, tells the story of coming to work one foggy morning and noticing that someone left the car lights on. He sent an e-mail to the entire distribution list with this subject line: "Lic. #234 ADB car lights on." Realizing that James was in the office, people took the opportunity to send him their own messages. One person asked James to meet her for lunch, another wanted to find out when a seminar was being offered, and another wanted some other information. None of the people changed the subject line from "Lic. #234 ADB car lights on," although none of the messages had anything to do with the one that James had sent.

Finally...remember that e-mail is a serious business tool, and you should treat it with the same respect as any other business document you write. Just because the computer screen doesn't have the heft and feel of a sheet of paper, that's no excuse to abandon the good habits you learned for the print medium.

  • Start each e-mail message with a salutation, and end with a closing.
  • Use upper and lower case letters where they belong.
  • Limit paragraphs to approximately seven lines of text.
  • Use headlines to draw attention to what's important.
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation.

About Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

For the past 20 years, Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has been Principal of Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts & Associates, a business writing firm specializing in marketing communications, business/technical writing workshops, and business writing coaching.

Sheryl is the author of 19 books including Strategic Business Letters and E-mail. She also delivers e-mail writing workshops both live and online. To learn more, check out www.sherylwrites.com.