I have a love/hate relationship with e-mail. I appreciate how it simplifies connecting with people, and it enhances responsiveness, at least some of the time. However, it also drives me crazy, because few people use it well. (I’m not suggesting I always use it well!) Clients often ask how they can get e-mail under control. When the “in box” is overwhelming, it’s challenging to track messages, their purpose, and what action is requested of you or the other party. I have a suggestion that will help, especially if you can persuade co-workers to follow your lead: change the subject line! Specifically, craft an informative subject line, so it conveys a clear message. This is the “headline” approach to e-mails.
If you write a good subject line, it reduces time and frustration related to e-mail threads continuing without resolution. As a sender, do the recipient a favor by letting her know what your message is about, summarizing in bullet point format (complete sentences not required). Allow me to demonstrate, starting with a typical, incomplete — but well intentioned — message, answered in an unhelpful fashion, and then addressed more efficiently, with a new-and-improved subject line:
FROM: New Contact
How about lunch in late October to discuss how we might collaborate?
– New Contact
TO: New Contact
Lunch would be great. What day?
HELPFUL RESPONSE, WITH INFORMATIVE SUBJECT LINE
TO: New Contact
RE: Lunch 10/27, noon, at Elmo’s?
Lunch would be great. I’m open October 27 at noon and suggest we meet at Elmo’s. Let me know if this works, or propose another date/location later that week. Thanks.
The latter message spells out the requested action in the subject line, allowing the recipient to see the point. Ideally, New Contact will read the entire message, but Julie is providing a shortcut. It’s refreshing to view specifics (purpose, date, time and place) instead of a pitiful RE: RE: RE. (NOTE: no subject line at all is not helpful at all.) If this e-mail thread must continue, and at least one party changes the subject line to reflect progress, it will be easier to finalize what we hope will be a fruitful lunch meeting.
I welcome your comments about e-mail at work. Do you love it, hate it, or both, like me?