Taming The Beast – Making E-mail Work For You – Part 2 of 3

Getting Up To Speed

Part 1 in this series looked at how our love-hate relationship with e-mail developed.  It proposed changing our perspective to better align our expectations with what e-mail actually is and does – a modern way of doing something we’ve long done otherwise (send communiques).  Finally, the first missive provided two suggestions to help you regain command of e-mail by reducing the stress it causes and by increasing your efficiently when using this powerful tool.  I refer you to that article for a more in-depth discussion of those topics.

This installment turns to individual e-mails and looks at a couple of tips that will make each e-mail more effective and efficient.

The Drill Down

Aside from the addictive behaviors people exhibit around e-mail, many of the problems arising from its use result from sloppy habits when creating an e-mail.

Much has been made about the demise of grammatical and spelling accuracy in e-mail, as well as the ever-growing short hand that has developed.  That’s not the point here.  The point here is that not enough care is taken when constructing an e-mail.  As a result, mis-communication and confusion abound.  The two suggestions below demonstrate this notion while addressing ways to correct the problem.

One Subject Per E-mail

One of the greatest mistakes routinely made by virtually everyone who uses e-mail is mixing multiple subjects into one communique.  The problem here is that people only remember so much of what they read.  Consequently, if information about multiple subjects is included in one e-mail, mis-understanding and confusion is likely to occur.  Let’s look at an example of the phenomena.

There is a game played around the camp fire where the first person whispers a story into the second person’s ear.  The second person then whispers the story into the ear of the third person and around the camp fire the story is told.  When the last person has heard the story, he/she turns and tells the story to the entire group.  The story the last person tells is wildly different than the story the first person started.

The reason the story changes so much is that people only remember pieces of what they read, hear or see.  (There are numerous studies on this, but the point here is that less than 100% retention occurs).   Moreover, people tend to fill in the blanks in their memory, creating further deviation from the original message. 

The net effect is that when people are given lots of information to manage, there is a risk of mis-understanding or confusion.  Mixing in multiple subject matters to that information transfer increases that risk by an order of magnitude.

Applying these observations to our situation here, if two subjects are covered in one e-mail, the reader may rely or act upon on a mix of that information.  If that happens, they are likely to do the wrong thing.  Doing the wrong thing is, at a minimum, a waste of time and, at a maximum, a huge problem.  And that’s just the “effectiveness” analysis.

There’s also an “efficiency” issue here.  If you have two subjects in one e-mail, where do you file that e-mail (assuming it needs to be retained)? How do you find it later if you need it?  The short answer is you have to file that one e-mail in two places, which raises a number of other concerns.  For example, any time you have do something twice, you increase the risk of error by 100%.  Also, what do you do if there is confidential information in one part of that e-mail that shouldn’t be filed with the other subject?

The Rule:  One Subject Per E-mail.  They’re essentially free to send, so send as many as you need to in order to increase your effectiveness and efficiency.

Leverage E-mail Subject Lines

I am old enough to remember sending actual business (and personal) letters to people.  Letter structures looked something like this:


Address Block

RE: Specific Description Summarizing the Subject of the Letter


Body of Letter

Signature Block

Though many of the elements in letter writing persist in modern e-mails – date, addressee, salutation, body, and signature block – the use of the RE: line has changed considerably … for the worse. The purpose of a RE: (or Subject line) is to give the reader an idea of the letter’s subject matter. It also provides direction on where to file the letter, as well as a way to quickly find it later when sifting through reams of paper.

In short, the Subject line does some pretty heavy lifting!  So why don’t we use it to greater effect in e-mail?  The vast majority of e-mails sent have very skimpy, often useless, Subject lines.  We’ve all seen some of these:

What’s up?


High Priority

None of these provide the reader any useful information concerning the subject of the e-mail, nor do they assist in the filing or retrieval of these communications.  Moreover, whenever an Inbox has numerous High Priorities, the hunt-and-seek method is the ONLY way to find the one the reader is looking for!  Use of sloppy Subject lines drives ineffectiveness and inefficiency by failing to communicate valuable information in a readily-available manner and by causing readers to comb through many similarly titled e-mails.

Simply improve the content you place on the Subject line to eliminate all the problems listed above.   Here are some simple examples:

Update:  Johnson marketing campaign – Results as of 11/16/2010

High Priority:  Please call Jane Doe at 111.222.3333 about tomorrow’s meeting

Is that so hard?  In fact, if you want to be a power-user, create a simple naming convention that you re-use for every e-mail (and other Subject lines – appointments, tasks, etc.) so that crafting these summaries becomes both easier (because it follows a form you create) and more effective (because you can include even more information).  Here are a couple of examples of the Subject line naming convention I use:

Send:  10 QuietSpacing books and QuickStart cards – Regular mail – Delivery by xx/xx/xxxx

Conference call  – Smith Matter – Please Join – Tuesday, 11/16/2011 – 10:00 AM Pacific – Conference Bridge – xxx.xxx.xxxx, Access #1234

You can see that these are very quick to craft because I’m focused on the subject at the time I’m writing the e-mail.  Moreover, the recipient immediately knows what I’m communicating and can open the e-mail with a head start on the details.  Later, when he/she needs to find this e-mail again, it can be sorted quickly and/or found by looking down just the Subject lines with no need to open and read a list of e-mails.  Finally, it can be readily filed by the recipient or a third-party without digging into the body.  Fast and effective!

The Rule: Leverage Your E-mail Subject Lines.  When you are crafting an e-mail, you are already focused on the subject, so just give your recipient the benefit of good, articulate information in the Subject line.

Each E-mail Matters

If we start from the assumption that e-mails are sent about things that matter, then developing some specific rules for crafting each e-mail will improve both our effectiveness and our efficiency.  In this Part 2 of Making E-mail Work For You, those suggestions are to include only one subject in each e-mail and to craft robust Subject lines. 

These two tips will greatly reduce the risk of mis-communication and increase the efficiency of reading and managing e-mail.  With less time spent dealing on clarifying or dealing with e-mail, there’s more time to do the things you want to do!

One thought on “Taming The Beast – Making E-mail Work For You – Part 2 of 3”

  • Good points all, Paul. Let me add a couple of suggestions.

    The whole “where to file” problem can be eliminated by switching to Gmail, or receiving your company-domain email via Google Apps bridge to Gmail. Gmail accumulates all mail in a thread as a “conversation,” and eschews folders, instead allowing you to affix multiple tags of your own creation. Thus, tags serve as virtual folders, and you virtually file the note in two places without replicating it.

    Subject line: I stumbled across this idea many years ago while chairing a national legal marketing conference. I started getting lots of email from my conference committee. As you point out, most of the subject lines gave me no clue as to the sender’s purpose or need. These included a number of the dreaded “FYI” variety.

    I first explained to my colleagues that “FYI” mail was a waste of their time because there was no inherent “I.” We established the “forgiveness vs. permission” principle, which meant you didn’t need my validation on anything, hence, no FYI mail welcomed.

    The more practical solution, though, was to establish the requirement that a Subject line include an active voice verb and a specific object. That let me know what you want me to do, and about what. It saved me from having to read the entire email to ascertain both of those. We then extended it to the CC: function. No CC unless the person would suffer some specific, identifiable harm by not being copied. This simple discipline cut down our committee’s email traffic by about 75%, and we produced the most successful conference to that point in the organization’s history.

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