Emails that get opened (and read)

There are a few basic rules of email that most professional communicators can recite at the drop of a hat. Things like:

  • Clear subject line
  • Most important information first
  • Relevant to the reader
  • Simple and easy to read
  • Conversational tone.

Now, I recognise that nobody is perfect and it’s only too easy to make mistakes. But I was astonished by the email I received recently from an international professional communication association. It was confusing, the main message was buried, and I had great trouble working out who it was from.

I tend to be pretty choosy about the emails that I open. Like most people, I receive more email than I would like, and I tend to work through my messages very quickly. If the subject line isn’t relevant to me or if I can’t figure out who it is from, I delete the message without opening it.

So it was only by chance that I opened this particular email.

The subject line said: ‘Message from John Smith’ (yes, I have changed the name). But the message wasn’t sent by ‘John Smith’; it came from another person whose name I didn’t recognise.

I consciously hesitated over the message before opening it. Although I had no idea who ‘John Smith’ might be, I figured there was a vague possibility that the message might be interesting.

The email opened with ‘Dear Judy’ – a good start, I thought. But then it went straight into a quote from Winston Churchill! This had me intrigued, but confused … what was this message intended to sell, and who was sending it to me? The only thing that stopped me from hitting ‘delete’ was the possibility that I might be looking at a good example for training purposes.

It turned out that the message was sent to inform me that the association is looking for a new President – which is a full-time, paid position. I figured this out in the 5th paragraph of the message. Most of the message was about the process being used, but it did include a link to the job description (presumably in case a current member wants to apply).

For me, this message reinforced the need for strong subject lines and first paragraphs. Email is about speedy, clear communication, not chatty stories and intrigue. It’s the writer’s responsibility to ensure that an email is written in a way that will quickly communicate a clear message to readers. That delete button is oh, so close.