One Small Step for Email

Sometimes people show me samples of incomprehensible emails they have received and ask if the problem is curable. Well, yes, it is. Practically any human can be taught to write clearly and effectively, though the result isn’t necessarily pretty. You don’t need to be born with any special literary gene; you just need to learn some techniques and then practice.

This is a topic that will not fit into a single blog posting, but I will share you one simple tip for writing emails that will save everyone some time. It’s just one small step towards better email, but it’s a big one: put some content in the message subject.

Very often you are looking at your intray and deciding which message to open and you are faced with dozens or maybe hundreds of meaningless subjects. Blank subjects are about the worst – though I think that the client should take the first words of the message body in this case. But there are plenty of others that seem to be ok but are in fact useless. “Organization announcement” is one that I have seen too many times. True, the subject matter is organization but of what? You realize the uselessness of these subjects when you need to find a message later. Often the only hope of finding an old message is with Google desktop.

A good message subject should encapsulate the main point of the message. So instead of say “Meeting”, or even “Meeting in Helsinki” you should be thinking of something like “Meeting in Helsinki cancelled”. In some cases the entire message will fit in the subject line and you don’t need the body text at all. Some people mark these messages by adding at the end. EOM stands for end of message and is an old internet shorthand meaning that there is nothing after that. The problem is that most people don’t know this so they call you to ask what it means, costing you more time than you saved. It’s also a good idea to repeat the same line inside the message or unsophisticated users --geek speak for dummies -- will send it back saying you forgot to type the message.

When you reply to a message your email client will allow you to change the subject and this is something you should always do. The best plan is to leave the original subject but to add the main point of your reply. If the original subject was very long it is a good idea to shorten it and then add your part. For example, if you received the “Meeting in Helsinki cancelled” then your reply could have a subject like “Meeting in Helsinki… / propose videoconference”.

Really it is that simple. It takes a very small amount of extra effort to make the message subjects useful but this small effort brings much bigger time savings to everyone else. And if you think it is obvious look again at your intray. I’ll be very surprised if none of your colleagues need this advice.


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