In December 2018, I wrote the blog post “You Sent that?”, which discussed both WHEN to use email and HOW to use email more effectively. If you have not read that post, or have since forgotten, one of the items I addressed was the importance of including a descriptive subject line that explains the purpose of the email to help the recipient prioritize the email, anticipate the content, and easily search and locate the email later if necessary. 

Recently, while scrolling through Twitter, I stumbled upon a post by none other than NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor, Liane Davey, addressing the importance of email subject lines. I knew I had to share her brilliant insights. Dr. Davey recommends going beyond explaining the purpose of the email. She recommends including standardized subject lines with a call to action!   

Below is a summary of Dr. Davey’s guidelines and techniques to improve email. 

Use verbs in your subject line!

The most important part of your email is the subject line. Use verbs to identify the most important action for your reader. Do you want them to decide, review, validate, choose, edit, suggest, or approve? As you write the email, make sure that action is front and center so the receiver knows how to triage, digest, and act upon your message.

In addition, include enough information to allow the receiver to triage the message. A clear verb and a specific noun make for a good subject line.

For example:

  • Action Required COB: Choose Presentation Title
  • Action Required Friday 14th: Validate ERP project committee membership
  • Primer for Friday Bid Meeting: Read Context for Bid go no-go decision
  • FYI: New Fourth Floor Layout Plans

Consider Standardized Headers

Standardized headers are particularly useful for teams. They create a common language and mutually understood expectations the first time.  

Action Required COB: This means you need this email to be read and responded to before close of business. Anything in this category must be dealt with before the end of the standard working day (e.g., 5:00pm or whatever the end-of-day is for you). These are often actions that require you to do something with the response the same day. Receivers shouldn’t walk out the door until these are done. (So, use this header sparingly.)

Action Required EOD: This means the email contains something that is important to the next day’s work. While EOD stands for end of day, and would therefore mean 11:59pm, I interpret this one as before start-of-day tomorrow. If the sender starts working at 8:00am, it needs to be in their inbox at 7:59am.

Action Required Date: For anything other than COB or EOD, use a specific time or date to give your audience clarity about when you need a response.

Primer for x: This means the email contains information that needs to be read before another event. It means that there isn’t an email response required, but it will be an important primer for something you’re doing.

FYI: This means the email is of low urgency and can be filed and read later, if needed. When this is accompanied by a good subject line, it facilitates search and retrieval if and when the information becomes important.

What comes after a great subject line? Check out Dr. Davey’s article to learn more.

By Liz Hill, Associate Director
University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office