Thursday, 31 March 2011

Email: Say It In The Subject - and take part on Friday 15th April!

I'd like you to take a look at a section of my email inbox showing incoming email subjects:

Taking a look at the subject list above -  what are these emails about? Which ones allow me to get a good understanding of the content without spending time opening them - especially when I get more that 200 emails to my work email address a day and have to prioritise opening so that it doesn't become a full time occupation?

Looking at the list above, I'd say that I have some fairly good info received about:
  • The SharePoint workshop (what it's about, date and location),
  • The IT Clinic happening 31st March (though what is an "IT Clinic" without reading the email?).
  • There's some sort of Mobile Business Briefing on 29 March (but is it general or specific?).

The rest is a mystery. So do I spend time opening them to get the info, or ignore them?
  • "Out at Tesco" must be about the Tesco staff gay group but "what" about it?
  • What is the "API question"?
  • "Call for entries" for what?


I'm going to (try and) launch a new movement called "Email: Say It In The Subject!". This is where you always say the essential information in the subject of your email. 

But it's more than that: If you are writing an informal email - say to a colleague or friend - why not say the entire message in the subject?

  • Need that R&D Q4 review report by 11am for meeting with Chris. Ready by 10?
  • Happy to meet about XYZ proposal. Thursday at 2pm free for me. You?
  • IT Clinic - get your Tesco laptop super healthy - see us Thu 31st March in Atrium!
By reading those email subjects on incoming emails it would be easy for me to scan the subject list and quickly receive all the essential info I need, without opening the messages.

Of course some messages will be easier to say in the subject than others, but even then getting the essential info into the subject is better than not trying, as you can see from the examples in my real inbox this morning.

Try replacing "R&D Q4 Report" with "R&D Q4 Report - 4 new projects and great feedback from Mike M on ABC prototype" which would make people want to open the message to learn more.

Even more importantly, those receiving this report by email but can't give it a high priority would still get some essential elements of the report's content to take away.

If you are dealing with suppliers, customers, and the boss's-boss's-boss then a more formal approach is required, but still saying it in the subject will give them greater insight into the content.

In summary, saying it in the subject of an email:
  • Conveys information quickly.
  • Allows recipients to receive this information without opening your message. 
  • Recipients prioritising email messages to open still always get the info in your message.
  • You get your message across just by appearing in their list of emails!
  • Reduces bandwidth and spam if adopted everywhere (thanks @inksmithy!)

I accept this is going to be easier if you are experienced in shoe-horning interesting comments into the 140-character limit of Twitter. Indeed using that social networking tool got me into "saying it in the subject" in the first place. The number of times I have written in the body of the message, "subject says it all!" has been quite frequent in the last three months. Saying it in the subject is an even greater challenge since you only have 70-80 characters maximum. Now that's great Twitter training in itself!

So here in R&D we're going to try an experiment:

On one day - Friday 15th April - we're going to try and persuade colleagues in (and the wider Tesco organisation if people are willing), to write their emails by "saying it in the subject" - and to expect incoming emails to say it in the subject from their colleagues - just to see if we can get this to work and prove the three benefits listed above, as well as uncover any concerns.

You are welcome to join in! If your organisation / department / just your fellow team members are willing to give it ago on Friday 15th April then fantastic. I'll get some poster content ready for you to download, print out and stick on the wall in your place of work (or email for that matter).  Stay tuned to this blog for download details over the next couple of days.

If there are any journalists or bloggers reading this who would like help get the message out, that would be fantastic and great fun if you think it's a good idea - it would be awesome if the entire nation tried this for a day.

It would be great to find out who is taking part so drop me an email or write a comment below if you would like to do it. Tell me what you think, including any concerns.

Come on - let's make emails quick to read (and quick to write) by taking part in the experiment on Friday 15th April - Email: Say It In The Subject Day!

UPDATE: I have had some feedback by one T4T blog reader who finds that subject-only messages can feel insulting - as "no effort taken". That's why I've set it to a 'day' when people should expect such messages and won't be insulted. It would feel more like receiving instant messages from Live Messenger or an SMS message.

If readers perceive the benefit of extracting info and saving time over the 'insult' of brevity, then I think we're getting somewhere.

Again it's about protocol - nothing important should be sent subject-only.


  1. Very interesting...

    I try my best to put a good summary in the subject of my emails. I might not fit the entire message in subject, because I don't really agree with that, but my aim is always to put a good summary.

    The reason I don't like it when people put the entire message in the subject line is because I find it very insulting. Its probably ok in some situations and between some people however I am a sucker for a well formatted email. It gets me really angry when people just reply with a one liner when I have formatted my email properly (persons name, to the point message body, further info, signature, contact information).

    Maybe its different for different occasions and for different people.

    Another reason to add about the subject bar. If you put a good and relevant subject in then not only are you going to get a better response from the person you have sent it to but when they hit reply your inbox will also be much tidier and you will be come more efficient!

    Nice idea Nick... I will not be taking part in the 'Say it in the subject day' however every day I will be sure to remember this blog post and continue in my effort to 'put a good subject'.


    James Mills

  2. Hi James

    Yes it's a good point - that's why I've set it to a 'day' when people should expect such messages and won't be insulted. It would feel more like receiving instant messages from Live Messenger or an SMS message.

    If readers perceive the benefit of extracting info and saving time over the 'insult' of brevity, then I think we're getting somewhere.

    Again it's about protocol - nothing important should be sent subject-only.

    Great comment, tho, thanks

  3. I won't be taking part.
    Not because I disagree that having a good subject line is a good idea, because it is - and your article has certainly prompted me to think more carefully about what I put in my subject - but just because I absolutely hate it when people do this already.

    How do you reply to it for a start? You'd lose any message history. I make a point by putting a huge reply in the subject line when I respond.

    I think a better question would be...
    If you only have a 1 line message to get across, is email the right way to do it in the first place?


  4. The Entertainment Team already do this, it's the fastest way to get information when using a Blackberry or Windows 7 Phone.


As this blog grows in readership - and because it carries the Tesco brand - I have had to become more careful about the sort of comments that are acceptable. The good news is that I'm a champion of free speech so please be as praising or as critical as you wish! The only comments I DON'T allow through are:

1. Comments which criticise an individual other than myself, or are critical of an organisation other than Tesco. This is simply because they cannot defend themselves so is unfair and possibly libellous. Comments about some aspect of Tesco being better/worse than another equivalent organisation are allowed as long as you start by saying "in my personal opinion.." or "I think that...". ... followed by a "...because.." and some reasoned argument.

2. Comments which are totally unrelated to the context of the original article. If I have written about a mobile app and you start complaining about the price of potatoes then your comment isn't going stay for long!

3. Advertising / web links / spam.

4. Insulting / obscene messages.

Ok, rules done - now it's your go: