Email from your Government

by Diane on 07/07/2012

Recently one of my colleagues attended a business writing course. On the following day we discussed some of the things he had been taught at that course, and there were a number of recommentations which I had to disagree with. Some may have been valid in the early days of email communication, but should certainly be seen in a different light today.

There were two main points I can recall from our discussion, to which I have a very different view than the presenter of that seminar:

  • Write as much content of the email into the subject line to make sure the receiver of the email knows what it is about.
  • Emails are an informal communications tool, if you want to send out formal content, attach a Word document.

Nowadays most people don’t even see the full subject line anymore. Regardless which email client you use on your desktop computer or laptop, most programmes only show a limited number of characters. It gets worse on mobile interfaces, where space is limited even more. So my recommendation would be the exact opposite: write a short, but straight to the point, subject line that will give the reader an idea about what’s coming. The email’s body is for the real information.

I also disagree with attaching letters (especially Word documents) to emails. The core information should be written into the email’s body, that’s what it’s there for. It allows for a quick scan for relevance before having to start another tool to open the attachment with, and will make searching and finding of the email much easier at a later stage.

It’s funny that only a few days after I had had this discussion with my colleague, I received an email from the German Federal Administration Office. It had the longest subject line I’ve ever seen in my whole life (including an internal project number, my husband’s and my name, our dates of birth, and the actual ‘subject’. The email’s body contained nothing but an attached Word document, named ‘Dok3.doc”. When I first saw the email on my mobile in the morning while still in bed, it only showed me the first couple of letters and numbers of the subject line, and an attachment with a meaningless name, which was really hard to read on the phone screen.

But sticking to the two ‘rules’ in the bullet points above doesn’t only make it more complicated and unnecessary hard for the recipient of the email, it will also bite back the sender if they expect a reply. You can see my response below – it must be very hard for the sender to recall what exactly that email was about, if they can’re refer to any text quoted in the email body. I guess they’ll be fine as long as I don’t change the subject line, or maybe they have a very sophisticated email client that helps them make sense out of incoming emails.

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