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Subject Line: URGENT!

Everyone knows first impressions matter, but few people consider the subject line of their email; a place where first impressions are made. I believe, however, that email subject line choices tell as much about you as your voice mail greeting—and that it’s important to be not to be too preemptory, too vague, or too familiar. Here are some examples:

Let’s look first at URGENT, and its alternative CRISIS. Here’s what I know: the word CRISIS rarely moves things along. In fact, it generally ratchets up everyone’s blood pressure without producing a discernibly different result. Additionally, when it’s used too often people no longer pay attention to the note—or the opinion expressed. As noted in How to Wow, my request is that you use “situation” not “crisis.” With regard to urgent, I’m now requesting that before you use it, you ask yourself, “Is this as urgent to the receiver as it is to me?” (The same question should be asked before hitting the “priority” setting on the email itself—that gives your email a little flag, special color, etc.—again, “priority” for whom?) If not, my recommendation would be to have a subject line that relates to the note you’re sending; in the body copy of that note, you can say, “As you can imagine, I’m hoping to resolve this/get an answer sooner rather than later.” You can also (gasp) call the person. The use of both mediums will underscore its urgency for you.

What are some other headings guaranteed to set my teeth on edge? How about:  

For when you get in on Monday …
Unless you’re my boss, why are you dictating my Monday activity? (We won’t even get into why you’re emailing me on a weekend.) 

Just so I don’t forget/Please remind me …
Again, am I your assistant? If you need to make a note to yourself to remind someone of something, feel free. But don’t put it in their in box to get it out of yours. 

Please call me
I understand this one somewhat. You’d like to speak with someone and don’t want to interrupt their day. That said, I think leaving them a message in the medium in which you want to continue the conversation is best. In these circumstances, then, I would recommend leaving message on their voice mail and, if you’re still feeling like double-teaming them, send them an email saying you’ve left them a message and asking if they can call at their convenience. 

I know you’re out sick but …
Um, yes. I’m out sick. Your life is not more important than mine. 

At the opposite extreme are overly vague headlines along the lines:

  • Friday?
  • Your thoughts?
  • ?
(I admit I’m guilty of the last.) In every case, I would prefer (and will now make a habit of myself) spelling out exactly you’re trying to clarify, so “Friday” becomes, “Friday meeting. Your office at 11?” “Your thoughts?” becomes, “Request for feedback for Monday’s report.” And “?” has a reference included to the question you will be asking.

The other subject-line-misdirect I’ve noticed comes from people who write to you simply by searching their old emails for the last email that you wrote (which may have had the subject “Appointment May 12th, 2 PM?”), hitting the “reply” key, and then merrily writing you about a totally different matter. Don’t do this. Cut and paste their email address into a fresh email, and have the subject line of your email actually reflect the subject—like being on time, it shows respect for other people’s time and mental energy. 

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