‘Please read’ – what sort of an email subject line is that?

If the message is from someone you like you don’t need a subject line at all

“’Orange Club Biscuits’. This was a more grabby subject line in response to last week’s column than the typically inscrutable ‘today’s article’, which gives no clue as to whether the email contains a bouquet, a hand grenade or something neutral.”

“’Orange Club Biscuits’. This was a more grabby subject line in response to last week’s column than the typically inscrutable ‘today’s article’, which gives no clue as to whether the email contains a bouquet, a hand grenade or something neutral.”

Mon, Jul 15, 2013, 01:00

What is the most off-putting thing you can write in the subject line of an email? It’s not “Please help me” or “You’ve won”. It’s not even “erectile dysfunction”. According to a new study of 2.2 billion emails, it’s much blander: what alienates us most is the word “learn” along with “attend”, “register”, “don’t miss”, “book”, “report”, “webinar”, “conference” and “monthly”.

As I work for a company that has as its motto “always learning” and that sells books, monthly reports and hosts conferences, this is a bit dispiriting. So I’ve set about compiling an alternative list of the 10 most off-putting words in the subject lines of emails in my inbox. Here they are in ascending order of obnoxiousness.

1 “Dear Colleague”. Even when these emails have been written by my boss, I’m not in a hurry to open them. Messages sent to everyone are seldom diverting; if by some freak chance they convey something interesting you hear about it anyway.

2 “Lucy/Lucy Kellaway”. Both subtract value as I know my name already. I used to object to strangers in call centres using my first name, but I have got over that and now dislike it being used in faux-familiar style by software that spews out spam. I also dislike the Amazon version: “lucy r kellaway: Limited-Time Deals?from Amazon”.

3 Anything in Russian or Chinese script. Having these alien characters sitting so inscrutably in your inbox is unsettling.

4 “Business Leaders are Thriving Thanks to Don Yaeger’s 16 Characteristics of Greatness”. This is typical of the moronic, badly thought-out email subject that journalists get all the time. Delete.

5 “You probably saw this already?.?.?.” Either you did, in which case you don’t want to see it again; or you didn’t,
in which case it’s not nice to know how behind other people you are.

6 “A letter from xyz”. This is
dreary, especially when you have never heard of xyz. It tells you he is sufficiently pompous to get his PA to send emails from her account attaching his letter, which you then have to open as a PDF.

7 “Invitation to?.?.?.” This should be nice, though there is an odd law that says anything you would like to be asked to never comes in an email with “invitation” in the subject line. Instead, it’s “Invitation to Terrific Mentors International 18 July Drink & Think”.

Still worse is a “personal invitation”, as in “Personal invitation to Lucy Kellaway to a Women’s networking evening” – which fails to please on no fewer than five separate counts.

8 “Please read”. Sometimes these messages are important, but the subject is so alienating that no one with any sense of self ever considers opening them.

9 “Request”. This is almost certainly something you do not wish to grant. “Sponsorship request” is a dismal subgenre, as is “cheeky request” – when even the sender dimly realises they are asking you something they ought not to ask. Worst of all is “Small request”: when the sender pretends the request is small, it’s practically impossible to wriggle out of.

10 “Reminder”. This reminds you the message is something you have already decided to ignore and so continuing to ignore it gets progressively harder.

However, there are some subject lines that have me opening the message with alacrity. Last week, the following had my instant attention.

“Specs found in second-floor ladies’ loos”. This was of pressing interest as I’d just lost a pair.

“Poss column idea”. Always a welcome subject line for obvious reasons.

“Are you ignoring me?” I had been ignoring him, but thus confronted, didn’t dare to go on doing so.

Orange Club Biscuits”. This was a more grabby subject line in response to last week’s column than the typically inscrutable “today’s article”, which gives no clue as to whether the email contains a bouquet, a hand grenade or something neutral.

“I disagree?.?.?.” I opened this at once, out of curiosity. As I did, a message with the subject: “Can’t decide”.

“Panegyric”. I had to check first what this meant, but then couldn’t open it fast enough. Alas, inside were a string of complaints: “You wouldn’t want me to be merely gushing panegyrics, would you?” the reader wrote.

This proves that even with rules, you still get it wrong.


Subject lines to adore
Two further thoughts: the very best subject line is one that contains the entire message; and the sender trumps the subject every time. If the message is from someone you like, you don’t need a subject line at all.– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)