Four steps to uncluttered email communication

When you think of clutter, you may not consider that it can infiltrate various parts of your life, including how you communicate with others. When your speech is unstructured and bursts out of your mouth uncontrollably, you’ll probably be asked over and over again to repeat yourself. The same is true with your emails. If you want to send easily understood messages without several explanations on your part, be sure to craft …

Clear subject lines

An easy to understand subject line will help the reader to quickly figure out the purpose of your message, what they need to do, and whether or not they can quickly respond. Of course, to write an attention grabbing subject line, you also need to understand why you’re writing the message and what actions you expect once it has been read.

  • Vague subject line: Meeting scheduled for next Monday
  • Clear subject line: Please RSVP ~ Marketing meeting on Monday, 12/3/12 at 11 am ET
  • Also, if the conversation in an email changes, give it a new subject line. It is extremely easy for information to get overlooked in an email when the content of the message no longer matches the subject line.

    Gather all the info you need

    … before you send (or reply to) an email. Be sure that you have done the required research or taken necessary steps before contacting the parties involved. First, it shows the recipient(s) that you value their time (you’re not asking them for information that you can get yourself, you’re offering all the pertinent information). It also solidifies the reason why you’re sending the email:

    • Are you sharing information? (“I will be attending the marketing meeting on Monday, Dec. 3 at 11 am ET.”)
    • Do you need information? (“Where is our marketing meeting taking place?”)
    • Are you asking for a specific action or set of actions? (“Please confirm that you will be attending the Dec. 3 meeting with the marketing group.”)

    Be concise and specific

    An email that doesn’t require the reader to scroll down the screen is more easily read. So, keep paragraphs short and specify exactly what you need in return (actions steps like, “Please RSVP by close of business today”). Put critical information in the first sentence (or two) instead of burying it in the bottom of the email. You’re not writing a mystery novel where the whodunnit is discovered at the end of the message.

    There are times when you can do away with the body of the email completely and simply use the subject line to convey your entire message. Some organizations use this strategy with EOM, an abbreviation for “end of message,” at the end of the subject line to let the recipient know the message is in the subject line. Anyone who receives a large number of emails per day will likely find this very helpful.

    Subject: NEW TIME! Marketing meeting now on 12.3.12 at 11:30 am ET (EOM)

    While abbreviations like EOM can be helpful, don’t use them until after you explain to your reader what they mean.

    Put down the mouse and pick up the phone

    There are times when it’s quicker to contact someone by calling instead of emailing (such as when you need an immediate answer to an urgent question). A brief phone call can eliminate the back and forth that sometimes occurs with emails and can be quicker than writing a lengthy message. And, at the end of the call, you can send a follow up email summarizing next steps and who will do what.

    Keep in mind as well that you can’t always grasp the true tone of an online conversation. A phone call, video chat, or short in-person meeting can allow you to avoid inadvertently giving the wrong impression and can help you to immediately clear up misunderstandings. Sure, you can use emoticons, but they can often come across as unprofessional (or simply not enough to convey true emotion), so it’s probably best to pick up the phone instead.

    5 Comments for “Four steps to uncluttered email communication”

    1. posted by Another Deb on

      Writing the entire message in the subject line is a habit that drives me crazy.

      I get things like this many times a day: “John Smith’s science in 4th period his virtual classroom is shutdown and he tried the new virtual classroom and it worked but his files were erased so will you please excuse him and he will solve it tomorrow” ( This is an actual message-I only changed the name.)

      My e-mail subject line only shows about 8 words and that’s how I need it to be for the other things I am doing with the desktop. I don’t want this form of message but how do you tell people they are making you open the e-mail anyway just to read the subject line? Can’t be done, I know….

    2. posted by Vickie on

      I think there are some great points made above. I need to find a way to tactfully share this with some people I exchange email with.

      One person titles at least half of her emails “Today”. I have no idea if she needs something today, just wants to update me on something, or if she’s simply acknowledging that today exists.

      Another has a habit of replying to an email and changing the subject without changing the title. So I’ll receive an email that says “Re: Monday Conference call re: Budget” but the body of the email is about another subject entirely.

      I use my email much like a digital file cabinet. Emails that are well titled help me file them AND make finding the data later a much easier task.

    3. posted by Deb Lee on

      @Another Deb & Vickie: Both your situations seem tricky…novel-sized subject lines or ones that are too vague probably make you want to pull your hair out. I find it helpful to be up front with people and nicely let them know that if they want me to read an e-mail, the subject line needs to be short and specific…or else their message just might get lost in my inbox because I’m not sure what it is. You could share this blog post, too. =)

    4. posted by Jodi on

      I like the 3-5 word method. Generally, if a subject line cannot summarize the email content in 3-5 words it’s too vague or too detailed.

      Meeting (one word – too vague)

      Nov. 11 budget meeting (four words, just right)

      Thursday, November 11, 2012 budget meeting in room 4 to discuss last quarter’s accounting problem (15 words – too long)

    5. posted by Katie on

      Ever since I read this post, I’ve been much more careful about the subject lines in e-mails I send. Great tips! (I especially like Jodi’s 3-5 words method, although I’ve been going with 3-7).

      Also, when I’m looking for a response from someone within a particular time frame, I bold the request, so it draws people’s eyes there.

    Comments are closed.