Writing Good E-mail Subject Lines

Careful attention to your e-mail Subject: line can make your recipients love you.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #42

Writing Good E-mail Subject Lines

Wow! A friend just told me he had sent me the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything in an e-mail message. I rushed to open the message, but when I got to my inbox, there were 3,916 unread messages. “What was the subject line?” I asked him by phone. “Open this,” he replied.

Oh. Yeah. That e-mail. The one I deleted because I had no idea what it was. “Open this” sounded a bit too much like the bottle labeled “drink me” from Alice in Wonderland. Maybe Lewis Carrol would just toss down anything that said “drink me,” but I read the ingredients. If it doesn’t contain aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester, it’s not going anywhere near my mouth

E-mail Subject Lines are for the Reader's Benefit

But don’t you just hate vapid e-mail subject lines? Stuff like: “you just HAVE to read this” or “important” or “here’s the file.” You don’t know what they are, so you have to open them to find out if they’re important. Then if they are, you save them but can never find them again because you don’t know if “great idea for kids” is a message about your company’s new theme park, or an ad for that blackmarket adoption service you were considering. Your subject line is the first thing people see. Based on that one line, they decide whether your message is relevant. Help them decide! This is especially important if your message is going out to a big group, because you don’t necessarily know how important it is to each person. The subject line is your chance to give them a chance to filter out and read just the most important communications.

Subject Lines Aren't Conversation

Some people—and I’m sure you would never do this—use the subject line as if they were starting a face-to-face conversation. And since most of them couldn’t strike up a face-to-face conversation if their life depended on it, let’s just say their subject lines . . . suck. They write things like “Hi!” or “Hello!” or “What’s up?” Please, spare me. Spare us all. E-mail is not a conversation. If you want to talk, pick up the phone or visit in person. Take the time to use a real subject line.

Mostly, people use the subject line to describe the message. If they’re scheduling a meeting (oh, boy, meetings! I just love meeting. No, I don’t, I hate meetings). If they’re scheduling a meeting, they use the subject line, “Staff meeting.”  If they’re announcing the meeting is in a new room, they use the subject line, “Staff meeting.” If they’re sending out the agenda for the meeting, they use the subject line “Staff meeting.” With all this staff, I’m thinking we have a staff infection.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.