The non-verbals of email: Including a relevant subject line
Email is definitely a verbal medium. After all, we get most of the information in an email from the words the writer uses. Still, you can communicate quite a bit of information in an email with things other than your words; the question is whether or not you’re aware of what you’re communicating.
In this article, I’d like to take a closer look at some of the non-verbal messages on which people pick up when they receive your email—specifically when they see your subject line.
Think before you recycle (old subject lines)
Ever get that work email from someone you haven’t heard from in a while with a subject line that sounds like old news? You’re thinking to yourself, Huh, I thought we were done with that issue! Wonder what happened? So, you open up the email, start reading, and realize that they’re writing about something totally different than what’s on the subject line. They just recycled and old email and hit “Reply” but started on a completely new topic.
If you engage in this practice of recycling irrelevant subject lines, here’s a few thing you could be communicating to your reader:
- I don’t want to invest the time it takes to create a new email for you.
- I don’t think enough of you to update the subject line to reflect the actual reason I’m writing.
- My time is worth more than yours, so I’ll leave it to you to wade through my message and determine what this email is about.
(By the way, this last item on the list applies to leaving the subject line blank as well.)
On the other hand, if you include a relevant subject line that summarizes clearly what the email is about, here’s what you could communicate to your reader:
- I’m organized
- I pay attention to detail
- I care to communicate congruently (all aspects of my communication support the same message)
- I care about you and want to make your experience of processing my email as easy as I can
Just add on to the old subject
So am I seriously suggesting that you waste time modifying a seemingly insignificant subject line in your email just so that it matches what you’re writing about in your message? No, I’m suggesting that you INVEST the time in minding your subject line because it’ll pay dividends.
It doesn’t take much. Let’s say that you don’t want to start a new email chain, or maybe it’s even helpful to keep the history in the current email chain, but the subject has shifted. If either of those is the case, then simply add on to the existing subject line.
For example, you’re thinking of “Replying all” to an old email with the minutes from last month’s team meeting.
OLD SUBJECT: Oct 15 Project Awesome Meeting Minutes
You now want to ask the same group of people on the distribution for input on a specific issue in those minutes. Just add the relevant new subject to the existing subject line to modify it.
NEW SUBJECT: Need input to nail down Milestone #2 date – Oct 15 Project Awesome Meeting Minutes
The modified subject line focuses the audience’s attention on what you need to get from them. If you just reuse the old “Meeting Minutes” subject line, most folks (especially if they don’t report to you) will think to themselves: This is old news; I was there at the meeting; how important can this be? And they may ignore the email or file it without understanding that you’re changing the subject and asking them for something.
In business, sending a congruent message in which everything in your communication—your words, your tone, your intention—lines up to say the same thing builds your credibility and adds to your persuasiveness. Don’t let a seemingly small detail like your email subject line detract from your great idea or your unquestionable qualifications to address the issue in your email. Take a little extra time to make sure the relevance of your subject line measures up in quality to everything else you’re communicating to your audience.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.