In a world where emails proliferate like tribbles (see original Star Trek) many of us find it difficult to get our message across and especially get people to respond how and when we’d like. With that said, email can be the fastest and most effective way to communicate.
Voicemail isn’t quite dead, but almost (how long since you’ve checked your voicemail at work!). Text messaging hasn’t quite made it to the “over 50” crowd. And the art of conversation is all but dead. That leaves us with email.
I’ve seen a number of tactics used by people and SPAMers to get their point across in email. Most of these tactics are annoying and can be just plain obnoxious. Most people forget we have this little button called “DELETE”.
If you get more than 30 emails in a day, and most of us do, then we are getting pretty good at hitting that delete key. In fact, statistics show that people take no more than 10 seconds to decide what to do with an email. The choices are:
- Forward on to someone else
- Archive (same as delete)
- Save until later (which is usually never – see “delete”)
Think about that, you have less than 10 seconds to grab a reader’s attention. That’s not a lot of time (even in today’s fast paced world).
So here are Five Ways to Kill an Email or assure someone deletes, archives, or saves until “later”:
- Subject Line Suckage
- Chunky Peanut Butter Paragraphs
- No Headings
- CC or BCC
Way #1 to Kill an Email: Subject Line Suckage
The first way to kill an email is with a poor subject line. The subject line is the number one thing people look at in an email (even more than the sender). The subject line is GOLD, it’s prime real estate, it’s the Taj Mahal of houses.
If you want the reader to delete without so much as a pause, then feel free to give them a cryptic subject line. Even worse would be NO subject line. Subject lines such as “Cost” or “Project XYZ” just don’t cut it anymore. They might have worked five or ten years ago, but not today.
The only way to make sure your reader at least considers your email is to give them the purpose in the subject line. That’s the purpose, the whole purpose and nothing but the purpose.
I’m not asking you to give the reader a paragraph in the subject line. In fact, most subject lines should be no more than 10 words. But without articles like “the”, “a”, and “and” you can state a clear purpose in under 10 words (if you can’t, you might want to think about sending your message another way).
A good subject line should enable the reader to not read the message unless they want more details. That also means you should put the action in the subject line. Usually the action only adds a couple of words such as “by Friday” or “at 10:00 AM”.
Subject Line Examples: Here are a couple of examples of good subject lines:
- Meeting at 10:00 AM in room A4 with management team
- Needed cost information on Boom project by Friday
- Delay in reorg status update until 10/24
- Requested info on Technical Writing by Tuesday
The fastest way to kill an email is with some vague or cryptic subject line. To avoid an early death, put the purpose and action item in the subject line.
Way #2 to Kill an Email: Chunky Peanut Butter Paragraphs
Most people have their preview screen set up in email. That means that they see a small section of your email without opening it. A great way to get your email deleted is to have big “chunky peanut butter” paragraphs. I define a “chunky peanut butter” paragraph as any paragraph of over five lines of text. A plain text email with long paragraphs has little or no chance of getting looked at.
When I say “lines” of text, that doesn’t mean “sentences”. So five lines of text translates to two or maybe three sentences. Keep your sentences short as well. Keep sentences under 20 words.
The paragraph is the least effective method of communicating in a document. It’s the last place people go to get information. So keep paragraphs and sentences short.
Any paragraph that has three or more like items should be a bulleted list. People will read bullets where they won’t read a paragraph. Also, a bulleted list is now considered a “visual”.
Way #3 to Kill and Email: No Headings
A common mistake many writers make is to not chunk their information up into “bite-sized” pieces. Granted, most emails are short and many may be just a few lines. For those emails, no headings are needed. But if you are giving the reader more than one piece of information, please use headings.
Readers can scan a heading; they can’t scan text. A heading is what we call a “Signpost”. It enables a reader to skip information they don’t care about and only read what they are concerned with.
I’ve had people tell me, “but I want them to read the whole message”. Sorry to burst your bubble, but hardly anyone reads the whole message. Get over it! The best thing you can do for the reader is chunk information up and use headings.
Example: If someone asks me for cost information and available dates for one of our workshops, I would send them an email with the headings “Workshop Costs” and “Available Dates”. How hard is that!
Another nice thing about a heading is it creates white space. We like white space! The more white space, the better. Keep in mind, the look of an email is as important (if not MORE) than the actual content.
Way #4 to Kill an Email: TMI
Emails should be short. If you have a lot of information to share with the reader, email probably isn’t the way to do it. In the olden days we looked at “page count”. Today, we deal with “screens”.
With the preview screen open, the reader can see a scroll bar on the side of the email. If that scroll bar is small, that means your email is multiple scrolls. Multiple scrolls automatically mean I can’t process the email quickly and that adds up to a quick “I’ll save this one until later”. And of course, that means “never”.
A good rule of thumb is to keep your email to two screens maximum. Preferably one screen! You can send more information than that via email, but please put it in an attachment. Keep your email short with no more than two screens of information – preferably one.
Another technique that needs to be employed more is to tell the reader up front (first screen) what the whole email contains. Even better – give me links for headings so I can jump to what I am most interested in.
Remember, readers don’t read an entire message. They Skim and Scan.
Way #5 to Kill an Email: CC or BCC
A great way to kill your email is to CC or BCC the person you are sending a message to. Granted, there are times when a CC/BCC might be effective but only for information purposes only. What you are saying when you put the sending in the CC/BCC line is “this email is information only – no action necessary”.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had managers tell me they delete all messages they are CCed on. If the message isn’t important enough to send it TO me, then please don’t complain when I delete your message without looking at it! CC/BCCing is a quick way to get your message deleted.
The method of CCing some one’s boss to get them to act doesn’t work. I have had people tell me CCing the boss is the only way to get action. But when I ask them if they like that done to them, they say, “no”. CCing the boss is a tone issue – Negative Tone.
A better way to get action is not to play games, but be direct with the person you need action from. Here’s a thought, why not tell the person why you need them to act! If that doesn’t work, try emailing the boss and asking them to assign someone to do what you need.
So, there you have it. Five ways to kill an email. To avoid having a reader send your email to an early death (a moment of silence please) make your email easy to skim and scan.
Remember the five ways to kill an email:
- Subject Line Suckage
- Chunky Peanut Butter Paragraphs
- No Headings
- CC or BCC
Feel free to send me an email. I’d love you see you use these principles to keep your emails alive and well. Good luck and good emailing!