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Grab Readers in Your Email Subject

Here are the email subjects of a few representative messages in my inbox:

  1. Good Afternoon
  2. ASTD April 2007 Newsletter
  3. Contact Info
  4. Directions to 2007 Support Staff Conference
  5. An Experiment
  6. Writing
  7. 4 Steps to a Client-Attracting Web Presence
  8. Pet Sitting Rate Increase
  9. Your Crowne Plaza Hotel Reservation Confirmation
  10. If You Use WebI, Read This and Sign Up for Training

The vague ones (1, 3, 5, 6) give me no real idea what the message is about. I must open the message, and I won’t unless I have the time and interest to do so–especially if I do not know the writer.

The other subjects give me all the information I need to know how to handle the message (2, 4, 7-10). Even number 8, the bad news message about the pet sitter’s rate increase, is instantly clear about its purpose.

But 7 and 10 grab my attention. If I want to attract clients, I will open “4 Steps to a Client-Attracting Web Presence” (a message from marketer Steven Van Yoder) as soon as I can. The phrase “4 Steps” suggests I will get useful information to act on.

My favorite subject is number 10, “If You Use WebI, Read This and Sign Up for Training.” The email came from my friend Margaret, who sent it to me to share her success. She had labored over the message to 200 people at her company. Its purpose was to get people to sign up for a training program without phoning or emailing Margaret with questions.

Success! Within 75 minutes, 53 people had signed up for training, and only one person had stopped her in the hallway to ask a casual question about it.

Margaret grabbed the right people with her subject (users of WebI), and she told them what to do: Read and Sign Up.

Although it is efficient to tell people what to do in your subject, it is not always necessary. In some cases–for example, the message whose subject is “Directions to 2007 Support Staff Conference”–what readers should do is clear without telling them to do it.

Your subject can make a big difference in your reader’s responses. I still haven’t opened the emails whose subjects are “Good Afternoon” and “An Experiment.”


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.