The Mentorist

Message in a Bottle: How to Get People to Read Your E-Mails

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E-mail may be dead when it comes to communicating with your teenage kids, but in the business world it’s alive and kicking.

Like teenagers and texting, business people tend to opt for e-mailing even when the person they’re sending to is right next door. The result of all this keyboard clicking is inboxes bursting with unread messages.

For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of how to manage all the “stuff” coming into your inbox. Instead, let’s focus on how – when you’re the sender of the “stuff” – to increase the chances that your e-malls will get read.

Getting read requires getting opened. If you happen to be the CEO or managing partner, most everyone is going to open the e-mails you send. (Job security could hinge on it.)

But, for the rest of us, the trick to getting opened depends entirely on what you choose for your e-mail’s subject line.

Simple but true. To increase the chances that your message will be read, your subject line should do one (or more) of the following:

  1. Broadcast that your message contains information the recipient needs (or wants). Be specific.

    Treat your subject line like a newspaper headline.

    For example, let’s say your company is exploring the acquisition of a small ad agency called “Spin.” You’re on the due diligence team and have just found an internal memo saying that Spin’s largest client is threatening to leave. You need to send your CEO an e-mail about this, but he’s notorious for ignoring his inbox. Which subject line to choose: “Due Diligence Update”? Or “Largest Spin Client Threatening to Leave ”?

    The second, of course.

  2. Remind the recipient that he asked you for the information you’re sending (if, in fact, he did).

    Start your subject line off with “Research You Requested:” or something similar. CEOs and other “big picture” types often forget that they asked people for things.

    Reminding the recipient that he asked for the information you’re sending (i.e., he’s the whole reason the e-mail exists) will re-engage his interest and increase the likelihood he’ll open your message. (It also provides a bit of a guilt trip: He asked for this, he’d better read it.)

  3. If the purpose of your e-mail is to ask a question, consider making the question your subject line.

    Cut to the chase. From reading the title alone, your recipient will know what you want from him (i.e., your question answered). Because you’ve made his task clear, he’s more likely to click “reply” and send you an answer.

  4. Explain the consequences of the recipient’s not opening your message.

    I’ve spent a fair amount of my career waiting for the CEO to “sign off” on issues that needed his blessing. The CEO didn’t always understand the chain reaction his delay in “signing off” would create, so I started making it perfectly clear.

    In the subject line of my e-mails, I would write something like “Need Approval Today or Can’t Close Friday.” Of course, closing the deal on Friday was the CEO’s top priority, so my subject line got his attention – and the needed “sign-off.”

  5. Use a play on words or cultural reference.

    Light-hearted subject lines that pique the recipient’s curiosity can get results.

    I once wanted a fancy laptop that wasn’t in my department’s budget. This required the Chief Operating Officer’s approval, so I set about making my case to him in an e-mail. The subject line? “I Think Every Woman Should Have a Blowtorch.”

    Then, at the start of my message, I noted that the blowtorch idea was Julia Child’s [my title was one of her famous quotes] and said I would settle for a laptop instead. (I guess you had to have been there….)

    The point here is that my subject line was so “out there” that the COO couldn’t resist opening my e-mail. He had to learn what it was about. (I got the laptop, by the way.)

    But, be careful with this “creative” approach to subject lines: You need reason to believe your recipient will regard your title in the same spirit it was intended. In other words, know your audience.

  6. Write a title that contains only part of the punch line.

    For decades, television producers have used the “teaser” to get audiences to stay for what comes after the commercial. Turning your subject line into its own sort of “teaser” assures that your recipient will also stay around for what comes next –- and that requires opening your e-mail.

    Let’s say you have budget responsibility for your company’s legal department. You can bet that a subject line reading “How to Cut the Legal Budget by….” is going to get the CEO’s attention — and an opening click.

  7. Use your recipient’s first name.

    Addressing the recipient by his first name in the subject line (“Steve, Here’s Your NYC Itinerary”) personalizes the message and signals its relevance. In other words, the recipient had better open it.

  8. If your e-mail is a “reply” to another message, consider changing the title.

    We’ve all suffered from pig piles of “reply” e-mails, each responding to an original message sent to 15 people.

    By clicking “Reply” or “Reply All,” your message gets added to the heap and has the same subject line as the original, with a “Re:” attached. Sometimes, this is useful (for instance, it allows e-mail programs to highlight all threads in the same conversation). At other times, keeping the original title in your reply is simply laziness.

    After clicking the “Reply” (or “Reply All”) button, consider rewriting the original title so that it tells the original sender something new. Suddenly, you’ve started a dialog.

Still no luck in getting your “sent” e-mails read? Well, there’s this thing you could try called a telephone….

Sending e-mail

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

One thought on “Message in a Bottle: How to Get People to Read Your E-Mails

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