QuickTip: One Subject Per E-mail

I lobbed this bomb into an audience today during a presentation:

Only put one subject in each e-mail.  One Subject Per E-mail!

It was met with the usual response – shock, rolling of the eyes and all manner of rejection.  To me, this is just obvious common sense, but it seems that when it comes to e-mail, common sense seems is on holiday. 

Here are my thoughts on this, apparently, revolutionary concept of putting only one subject into each e-mail you send.

The Absence of the Obvious

There was a time before e-mail, and it’s progeny, when the world communicated through less efficient channels – phone, fax, teletype, express mail, and postal mail to name a few.  Much ado was made of these communications and for business people and professionals the written word was closely scrutinized and monitored during the crafting and sending efforts.  In fact, if we hearken back to even earlier periods, letter writing (that’s writing letters by hand) was considered an art form.

Somewhere in our rush forward into the electronic age much of this care and concern has been lost.  Before you go dismissing me as someone who simply longs for the “good ole days,” understand that I’m writing this post on a brand new netbook after checking my Yelp app on my iPhone for a good place to eat in Portland, Oregon.  A technology junky I’m not, but a user I am.  In fact, I make a living helping very smart and very capable people bridge the gap between technology and its application in the everyday working world.

Clarity Over Perceived Efficiency

One of the greatest risks to including multiple subjects in a single e-mail is the risk of confusion on the reader’s part.  Everyone likes to think they’re reasonably good writers and, frankly, many are.  However, people tend to only retain a small percentage of what they read and what they remember is rarely stored in a linear or chronological order.  Thus, when you blend two separate groups of information together, you run a very high risk that the reader will blend together information for the separate subjects into one joined memory, which results in confusion.

Everyone Likes a Campfire

A terrific example of this concept is the “story around the campfire” game.  If you whisper a fairly detailed story into the ear of the person sitting to your right and they do the same until that story has been retold around the circle, when the last person to hear the story recites what they heard, it rarely mirrors the original story told.  The reason is that people can only remember so much of what they’re told and, generally, they think in pictures, such that the retelling is always colored by their own interpretation of what they thought they heard.

Combing subjects into a single writing runs much of the same risk because people act on what they understood you to say.  Moreover, if the writer is less than clear about the delineation of the groups of information being conveyed, he/she may be contributing to an even higher risk of this result.

“Cost” Versus Benefit

Many audience members that hear my “one subject per e-mail” rule complain that it’s too onerous to craft multiple e-mails.  What?  Huh?  Let me make sure I heard that right!

E-mails are FREE to send!  The recipient’s name is already in the first one, so the only additional effort it takes is to craft a second subject line – which should be subject-specific ANYWAY! Given the minimal effort to send multiple e-mails, the increased clarity in communication certainly seems worth it.

Return to Sanity

Much of modern technology has revolutionized how we interact and communicate with each other.  Most of it is for the better.  However, many of the “rules” we lived by in the past still have great application today.  The single subject per e-mail rule is one that is worth considering if you’re ultimate intent is to be more effective and efficient in your communication.

2 thoughts on “QuickTip: One Subject Per E-mail

  • I totally agree with the one-subject rule and use it myself. I also find many people don’t agree with the rule. I like it because an email often generates a conversation of back-and-forth emails and by having one subject the conversation doesn’t get split off with each party cutting and pasting or trying to figure out what response goes to what. It also allows the email to be filed in print or electronic form with the appropriate subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.