Okay, so as far as titles go, that one sucks.
It doesn’t tell you anything about what might be in this column.
But that was intentional.
You see, I want to talk about email subject lines.
They pretty much suck, too.
An email subject line is not so different from a column title.
It should draw attention.
It should clearly indicate the contents of the message.
It should be not only short and concise, but also descriptive.
You think, then, composing one would be a cinch.
But it’s clearly not, based on the subject lines I get all the time.
Here are a few:
“Casting Call Info”
“Put to Good Use”
A couple of these come close to being useful.
Take “Casting Call Info”.
It’s generally clear what it’s about.
But what production is it referring to?
Is there a location associated with it?
Is time a concern?
There’s huge room for improvement.
Like, how about:
“Casting Call Wednesday at High Country for RBC Commercial”
It very quickly provides a broader view of the subject matter at hand.
It provides information about the production, and the casting call event itself. It tells you when and where it’s happening.
So what makes a subject line such a challenge to compose?
I find it’s generally the things we don’t think about that trip us up.
Like time and context. We make huge assumptions about both.
We assume the recipient will comprehend the subject based on a state of current affairs (a project, or an assignment) and the time at which it was sent (just after a meeting or a conversation).
The problem with context and time is that both degrade very quickly.
When we write an email, it generally refers to a matter or event that has happened very recently, or which is immediately pending.
So, in the short-term view of things, a super-brief and generalized subject line might make sense.
But what about a month from now, when someone searches back for that message as reference?
Will it make sense then?
Then’s there’s context.
You’re in the middle of a project when you write this subject line:
You just got off the phone with the person you’re sending the message to.
You were just talking about the training component of the project.
It should make perfect sense, right?
But maybe that person handles training for her organization.
Maybe she talks to two dozen people a day about training.
Now mix the element of time in.
Imagine in two months time she wants to return to your message to refer back to the matter you were discussing.
That subject line stops making sense pretty fast.
In fact, it turns into white noise: meaningless and incomprehensible.
Then there’s the third major problem with email subject lines: change.
After an email message has bounced back and forth a few times, it’s scarred with that long string of reply notations.
Like, “Re: Re: Re: Re: Do you want coffee or hot chocolate?”
The problem is, by about the third or fourth reply, you’re not even talking about hot beverages anymore.
But for some reason, we all view that subject line as sacrosanct. Like it’s illegal to change when we reply.
Well, I called the RCMP and they say it’s cool.
It’s perfectly legal to change the subject line to an email so that it suits the content of your reply.
And, really, it’s incumbent on you to do so if you’re not talking about the original subject matter anymore.
In general, there are no hard and fast rules about writing email subject lines.
But there are some general guidelines.
At the heart of email is the basic concept of communication.
You are conveying an idea, or sending information, to someone else.
As with any communication effort, it’s important to try and perceive how things are being received by the people you are sending them to.
We generally write subject lines first, as a quick, cursory way to get started, for our own reference.
Quite often we write them before we fully conceive of the entire substance of the email we’re about to write.
So instead, try skipping the subject at first, and writing it only after you’re ready to send your message.
Consider the subject a brief summary sentence of the message that you’ve already completed.
When you compose that subject line, maintain a perspective on how well it represents the who, what, when, where, and how, of your message.
Will it mean something to your recipient 6 months from now when she wants to refer back to it?
If she forwards it on to someone else, will that third party comprehend the message’s contents based on the subject line?
It only takes a second or two to think about these things, and it goes a long way to making sure the message you’re sending is better represented, received, and understood.
Now, in terms of a better title for this column…
How about, “Email Subject Lines Suck. Here’s How to Improvement Them.”
Or maybe, “How to make your email subjects more relevant and representative.”
Well, you get the gist…
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 26, 2010.