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Email: Say It In The Subject Line

Posted on Sun, Jul 13, 2008

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Q & A with Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

Pulitzer Prize winning sportswriter Red Smith once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

No one ever said writing is easy. But writing well is critical to success in business. The rules of writing have gone out the door with e-mail. Yet we know from our experience in working with leaders that you are judged by the content and clarity of your e-mail. Your e-mail reflects how you think.

The subject line of an e-mail can be essential to how your reader judges you. If you’re trying to win new business or maintain relationships with people you don’t contact very often, this rings true even more. After all, e-mails are easy to delete or ignore. You want your reader to take a quick look at your e-mail and say, “I want to know more.”

For June’s Ask the Pro, we sat down with Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, Principal of business writing firm Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts & Associates, and the author of 20 books including: Business Writing for Dummies, Technical Writing for Dummies, Strategic Business Letters and E-mail, and 135 Tips for Writing Successful Business Documents. Sheryl explained to The Voice of Leadership exactly what it takes to create a captivating subject line and be an effective e-mailer.

Q: Sheryl, why is the subject line of an e-mail so important?

A: The subject line is the most important piece of information in an e-mail message. It’s the first and only hint as to what your message is about—unlike a letter where the body is in full view. There are people who get hundreds of e-mail messages a day, and they can’t possibly read them all. So, if your subject line doesn’t seduce your readers, they may never open your message.

Q: What are some examples of subject lines that just don’t work?

A: If you look down the subject line column of your inbox, perhaps you see subject lines such as these that give you absolutely no information and no reason to read the message.

Q: What are some examples of subject lines that work?

A: I’m sure you’ve read USA Today. The front page has a column called “Newsline” that gives informative headlines of what’s happening around the world. You can read the headlines and get a snapshot of major stories. Wouldn’t it be informative to read the subject column of your inbox and get that same level of information? Always include in your subject line a key piece of information so your reader can get the gist of your message at a glance.

For example:

“15% profit expected for Q2” rather than “Profit report”
“We were awarded Waller project for $2.5 million” rather than “Waller project”
“MIS: Urgent meeting May 20 @ 2 PM in Blue Room rather than “MIS Meeting”

Q: What are some ways to brainstorm for compelling subject lines?

A: When you craft your subject line, think about why your readers should want to open your message. Make the payoff clear. Will your readers learn some valuable industry news? Will your readers get a great deal? Will your readers save time or money? And never be misleading. If your e-mail is about a computer product, don’t pretend in the subject line that you have free tickets to the World Series.

Q: Is it better to keep the subject line short and deliver more information in the body of he e-mail or the other way around?

A: When you can, deliver your message as the subject line and don’t bother writing in the text box. For example, you may write “I’ll finish the report tomorrow morning—SLR” and not even deal with the text box. When you put your initials at the end of the message, your readers get to know that the message “is” the subject line. You can also use –END or –EOM, for end of message.

I don’t recommend this type of electronic shorthand when you write to someone you don’t know. It’s for colleagues you communicate with regularly. However, you should always use a descriptive subject line, even when you write in the text box.

When you first start sending subject lines without writing in the text box, most people will “get it” right away and start to respond in the same manner. A few, however, may let you know that they “didn’t get your message.” You can merely tell them that you try to save them time and deliver the message in the subject line when you can. When they see your initials at the end, they’ll know you’ve done that. They, too, will start responding with this electronic shorthand.

Q: What about replies and forwards?

A: When you reply to someone’s message, always change the subject line. To maintain continuity in a stream of messages, use the key word in the subject line and add the change to the message. For example: Billing: To be discussed at April mtg.

My colleague, James, tells the story of coming to work one foggy morning and noticing that someone left their car lights on. He sent an e-mail to the entire distribution list with this subject line: Lic. #234 ADB car lights on. Realizing that James was in the office, people took the opportunity to send him their own messages. One person asked James to meet her for lunch; another wanted to find out when a seminar was being offered; and another wanted some other information.

None of the people changed the subject line from Lic. #234 ADB car lights on, although none of the messages had anything to do with the one James sent.

Q: Sometimes I get e-mails that have abbreviated words, all lower-case letters, or other grammar issues. Has this become acceptable, especially in the world of Blackberry’s and other portable devices?

A: The short answer is NO. Just because the computer screen doesn’t have the heft and feel of a sheet of paper, that’s no excuse to abandon the good habits you learned for the print medium.

• Start each e-mail message with a salutation and end with a closing.

• Capture the who, what, when, where, why, and how in the opening paragraph.

• Use upper and lower case.

• Limit paragraphs to approximately seven lines of text.

• Use headlines to draw attention to what’s important.

• Use proper grammar and punctuation.

About Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts

For more than 20 years Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has been Principal of Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts &  Associates, a business writing firm, helping clients to maximize productivity and profitability through the written word.

Sheryl is the author of 20 books including Business Writing for Dummies, Technical Writing for Dummies, Strategic Business Letters and E-mail, and 135 Tips for Writing Successful Business Documents. She also delivers business/technical/e-mail writing workshops.

To learn more, check out or

Tags: Strategy to Execution, Developing Leaders


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