How long do you take to decide whether to open an email? Probably not long—recent research reports that it takes as little as three seconds for us to determine it’s okay to ignore an email and move on.
Some emails get opened because of who sent them—your boss, a client, the co-worker on the same project. Some mails don’t require even three seconds to need a decision—foreign princes or bankers offering riches if you’ll only share your personal banking info.
Research says the average knowledge worker receives over 120 emails a day—and how many of us have only one email account? Your mails need to stand out from the crowd to get attention and action.
For most of us, some emails we write will be must-reads—when we are the boss or client, for example. For others, you need to work harder to persuade your recipient to get past your subject line (which better be good!).
However, getting your email opened is just the first part of the battle to persuade, inform, drive change, and have impact.
Use these 10 tips to get your emails opened and read. Make it easy for your readers to learn, engage, and act.
- Craft your subject line. There are thousands of articles online about just subject lines (here is one I like). “REPLY REQUESTED: planning the offsite” or “REVIEW BY WEDNESDAY: all-hands agenda” are clear and tell the recipient that they have an action to take. Using your recipient’s name in the subject gets attention, too, especially if the rest of the subject makes a promise or enticing offer.
- Summarize to start. Most email apps preview the email’s content when scrolling the inbox, even on mobile. Increase your odds by leading off your mail with the word “SUMMARY” or “KEY TAKEAWAYS” and then giving the gist of the mail as well as clear info on action items requested. Then dive into any needed detail. It’s better than seeing one more, “Dear colleague, Happy Thursday! I hope you and yours are well.” (Bonus hint: sometimes the summary is enough!)
- Keep it short. I encourage clients to squeeze most emails into the space allowed in an Outlook or Gmail preview pane. If your reader doesn’t have to scroll, they can review the entire mail without opening it. Got more to say? Attach or link a document, or front-load your most important points in a note that can stand alone, then add a horizontal line followed by “ADDITIONAL/OPTIONAL INFORMATION BELOW.”
This also applies to paragraphs—I try not to write email paragraphs longer than 4 lines in the preview pane.
- Front-load action items. Who’s got something to do? Get assignments in early, in your top-line summary, or within the first couple of lines.
- Use lists. If you have three or more points to make or summarize tasks for your eight-person virtual team, use bullets. Bullets draw the reader’s eye, break up the flow, and are much easier to digest than dense paragraphs. –> I like calling out key points using arrows for bullets.
- Make it colorful. Did you jump ahead to read this bullet because you saw red? Your readers will do the same if you put critical information in color and bold.
- Graphics—every picture tells a story, don’t it? If you’ve got a graph or picture that explains or amplifies a key point, use it. It’s easy to cut/paste visuals into your email body, and like bullets, color, and indentation, they draw the eye and get readers to engage with your content.
- Call out colleagues. I like highlighting names when I want to make sure someone sees something meant particularly for them, such as information regarding their department or an action item they must complete. Plus, it adds accountability.
- Use a poll. I don’t do this often, but it’s powerful when you have reason to use it. I’m most familiar with Outlook, which makes it easy to include surveys, and I’ll include them when I have a discrete set of options I can offer. From scheduling the next meeting to offering low/medium/high investment options, a simple poll tells the reader you want their input, shows respect for their time and is unusual enough to make your mails stand out. Remember to put “POLL” or “PLEASE ANSWER SURVEY” into your subject line!
- Shhhhh—it’s a secret. Another one you won’t use often, but if you are sharing sensitive information, consider adding rights and permissions controls unique to your email. “Confidential” and “do not forward” designations virtually scream “you’re special because you get to read this”—and who could resist that?
What are your favorite tactics for making sure your messages get opened, read, and acted upon?