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Subject Lines: What Your Readers Need

Posted Apr 7, 2012, by Roy Speed

Searching for a great Subject line

Few people in business seem to have given much thought to how readers use "Subject:" lines. Yet understanding how readers use them is the key to writing good ones.

Gauging priority
Consider the precise moment when readers first see your "Subject:" line -- Where are they? What are they doing?

If they're anything like you or me, they're surveying the contents of their Inbox: they're scanning a sea of messages and trying to figure out which ones they need to read before their nine o'clock meeting.

Put another way, they're trying to prioritize. And this is what all readers do when first scanning new content in their inbox.

So when composing a "Subject:" line, your first job is to make this task easy, enable readers to gauge quickly where your message fits in their day.

Now granted, your "Subject:" line must also serve to introduce your message, engage the reader with your content.

A simple template

You can accomplish both ends if your "Subject:" line includes two separate pieces of information:

  • your topic -- the project or business issue you're writing about;
  • your purpose -- your reason for writing about it.

A few examples:

  • Subject: Draft LDP Curriculum: Review by Friday 3/2
  • Subject: Draft LDP Curriculum: New version -- FYI only (no action required)
  • A couple of things to notice about these "Subject:" lines:

    • Each concerns the same topic or project -- Draft LDP Curriculum, whatever that is.
    • They don't have the same purpose -- the first requires action on the part of the reader; the second does not.

    Communicating both the topic and the purpose is the magic combination -- the formula that enables your reader to gauge the priority of your message.


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