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When it comes to email, short really is sweet

By Jennifer Stern

, |


When it comes to email, short really is sweet

By Jennifer Stern

, |

3 min read

Every day the average working person receives more than 100 emails. Many are clearly garbage, and get deleted without opening, but you can’t just delete – or even file – mails from colleagues, clients or your boss without reading them. Or can you? You can if you just use your subject lines effectively and creatively.

How we write ‘letters’

When I open an email from a PR company, a bank or an NGO raising funds, I can’t help but be sceptical when it starts off ‘I hope this mail finds you well …’

Really! Do they care how I am? No, but some people do care that they ask.

I was, not that long ago, given a severe dressing down by a publishing manager because I sent an author a chapter with corrections by attaching it to an email, and writing in the subject line ‘Chapter six to be checked by author’. The publishing manager explained how rude it was of me so, now, when I do work for that particular client, I take an extra minute out of my busy day to write ‘I hope you are well, and that all is good in the world for you. Here is Chapter Six. Please would you check the corrections, and send it back to me by … (and then I fill in the date that the author should know because she has it on her schedule).’

Packaging matters

While most of us agree that excess packaging is not a good thing, we do appreciate accurate labelling. I’d feel a bit nervous buying salt in an unlabelled plastic bag, relying purely on its position in the shop to identify it as salt rather than castor sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar, or perhaps some form of rat poison. Of course, I can always open the bag, pick up a pinch on my finger and lick it, but that’s hardly ideal. However, we use that thought process every day with emails.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you send a colleague a draft of a contract, with the subject line ‘draft of Smith contract’. He hits reply, says thanks, and that he will look at it when he has time. A day later he looks at it, and realises he does not have the original briefing document, so he hits reply and – below all the other stuff – adds, ‘please send me the original briefing document. You hit reply, and attach the document. He hits reply and says ‘Thanks. Oh – and, by the way, how is the Jones contract coming on?’ You hit reply and write ‘The Jones document is done. I sent it to you last week.’

You can see where this is heading, can’t you? If you are sweet, you will attach it again but – hey – it’s in his inbox. So he scrolls through the 27 mails in his inbox all with the subject line ‘re: Jones contract.’ And, yes, he will probably find it.

So, how come we believe that we should label salt accurately, but we don’t care about labelling emails?

Using subject lines effectively

By effectively using the subject line, the whole Smith/Jones contract correspondence could look like this (all in the subject line):

  • draft Smith contract
  • got draft Smith contract – thanks
  • Smith contract – please send original brief doc
  • Smith contract brief doc
  • got Smith contract brief doc – thanks
  • Smith contract checked – huge problem with supplier
  • Smith contract – I’m on the supplier issue
  • Smith contract draft 2 – supplier issue sorted
  • got Smith contract draft 2 – supplier issue sorted – thanks
  • Please resend Jones contract
  • Jones contract attached
  • got Jones contract attached – thanks

So what is politeness anyway?

Yes, the above exchange does not include caring comments about the health of the receiver and/or his or her family, friends, colleagues and/or pets. And, yes, it is kind of – well – curt, but the subtext is politeness itself. The subtext says that – while you may not be asking about the health of the recipient’s aunt and Siamese cat – you do respect their need to effectively utilise their time.

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Recent comments

1 Comment
  • Graham Thomas
    Posted at 17:54h, 17 May Reply

    Thanks Jen. very good, amusing and to the point.

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