Are they opening and reading your emails? Follow these five strategies and they will.

3 Ways to Make Your Email Pop

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been sharing some of our best email hacks, from mastering the call-to-action to creating killer email templates.

In this piece, we’ll be focusing on stepping up your personal correspondence style — and using that style to get what you want by email. Specifically, we’ll be talking about how to create compelling subject lines, use scannable writing, and mirror other people to really connect by email.

If you use these techniques, you will find your open rate, click through rate and compliance rate rise dramatically, as people start truly engaging with your correspondence.

So let’s start by talking about how to…

Write an Engaging Subject Line

People won’t read your emails if they don’t click on them. Subject lines are what get people to click.

When I want to get something done, I make my subject lines descriptive. It lowers the chances that someone will skip over my emails by exposing why the note is important.

Vague subject lines are terrible. They don’t show why the email is important, which means that someone could easily archive or delete your email without feeling any pangs of guilt. Here are vague subject lines that are absolutely useless:

  • Hello
  • A question
  • Guess what
  • Greetings
  • Help
  • Coffee?

What could these emails possibly be about? Hmm, no idea. Gonna skip. And I have no FOMO whatsoever.

Useful subject lines, in contrast, are descriptive:

  • Do you want to grab coffee next Wednesday?
  • Nice to meet you, Sherrill — Ken, the Texan from the astronomy conference
  • Hello from an Art of Charm podcast fan — question about Tim Ferriss episode
  • Could you help me practice my preso? I’ll bring pie

According to Constant Contact, creative subject lines will make you stand-out in your inbox, allusions, alliteration and rhyme are the most engaging techniques. Also, telling a joke in your subject line, such as puns or wordplay will get some laughs and better engagement from your target audience. Here are a few examples from their comprehensive article:

  • Allusion: “Sweet dreams are made of cheese”
  • Alliteration: “The Shoes Of The Season”
  • Rhyming: “Splish Splash oh the price we’ve slashed!”
  • Funny: “Shocking News: This Email is Mildly Interesting.”

MailChimp analyzed 40 million emails and found that the plain Jane emails that simply described what an email contained (like “Keds Newsletter – November 2015”) had open rates of 60%-87%, blowing salesy emails out of the water.

The worst, vague, salesy emails, like “Last Minute Gift – We Have The Answer,” got open rates of 1%-14%.

Now, MailChimp analyzed mass marketing emails from businesses, not emails from individuals to individuals, but their advice still holds:

So what’s our advice for email subject lines? This is going to sound “stupid simple” to a lot of people, but here goes: Your subject line should (drum roll please): Describe the subject of your email. Yep, that’s it … When it comes to email marketing, the best subject lines tell what’s inside, and the worst subject lines sell what’s inside. [emphasis added]

That’s not to say you should write an essay in the subject line. Another tip we can get from business email marketing studies is that the ideal length is 6 to 10 words long (based on a Retention Science study of 260 million emails), or roughly 50 characters (Mailchimp’s 40-million-email study). This is especially noticeable on mobile, where apps like Gmail only show the first six or so words.

But if you need to stretch to 11 to 15 words to make the your subject line descriptive, go for it. Businesses might take a hit of a few percentage points in terms of open rate, but a one-off email to a coworker or friend won’t have the same sensitivity.

My favorite email subject line came from my friend Marc. He was coming through San Francisco and wanted to organize a social breakfast meet-up with several acquaintances who lived here. I barely knew him at the time, so I’m not sure I would have attended if it weren’t for the subject line of his invitation, which read:

“[Confirmed] Me. You. Breakfast. Friday. 2/20. Downtown SF? Whoa. It’s going down.”

Marc’s subject line is both super specific and infused with his personality, making me feel like the get-together would be fun and easy to attend.

In other words, it was FOMO-inducing. Aim for this in every email you write.

Make It Scannable

When you want to get things done — or you’re asking someone to get things done for you — keep your emails short. They’d be wasting valuable time reading your epic when they could be getting to work. And 35% of emails are opened on a mobile device, which is all the more reason to be pithy and make your email easy-to-scan.

(For you email marketing and conversion buffs out there: Yes, longform copy does convert well in some cases. Here, we’re not talking about longform sales emails, but emails that rely on personal relationships and clear motivations for the reader to take an action.)

One way to make your emails scannable is to use bullet points to group similar ideas:

Hi Marcos,

Here is a status update on July’s articles. Please approve the ones in your Asana queue so we can proofread them.

Please approve (see your Asana queue)

  • Article 1
  • Article 2
  • Article 3

Coming next week

  • Article 4
  • Article 5
  • Article 6



Even better, create bold subheadings to draw the eye to important structural phrases:

Hi Marcos,

Here is a status update on July’s articles. Please approve the ones in your Asana queue so we can proofread them.

Please approve (see your Asana queue)

  • Article 1
  • Article 2
  • Article 3

Coming next week

  • Article 4
  • Article 5
  • Article 6



If you add emphasis like a bold subheading, or decide to introduce a color or highlight, make sure that you only use one “emphasis style” per email, so that you have at most two different styles in one email: normal and emphasis. Introducing multiple colors, fonts, and sizes confuses the eye and makes it hard to scan an email efficiently.

Another way to to increase readability is to use short paragraphs. The sweet spot is two to four sentences per paragraph, though you can punctuate this with one-liners. One director I used to work with at Google took this to the extreme. He writes very short emails made of one-liners:

“Hi, there

I’ll be in San Francisco for Google I/O.

Planning is crazy but the team has plenty up its sleeve.

Doing a lot of work with our new agency.

How are you? Want to grab coffee when I’m there?”

You probably don’t like burying your nose in your email all day reading walls of text. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Mirror the Other Person’s Style

Even a perfectly-crafted email can fail if the person receiving it is not big on email for communication.

If you’re starting a new working relationship with somebody, it’s helpful to quickly ask what their preferred communication method is. If they say they like email, then go ahead and communicate with them on email using the principles in this article.

Even if they write short, curt responses, you don’t have to second-guess yourself because you already know that they like emails. They may simply be very busy (and therefore prefer email to phone or meetings for the very reason that they can write a short response). They might not be in the habit of emailing often, might not like writing, or they might have no choice but to keep their notes brief.

Whatever their preferences, keep that information in mind for the next time you need a lot of information from them: don’t expect them to write a long email to you, so frame your emails in terms of yes/no questions, or tell them that in this particular instance you do need to get on the phone with them.

On the other hand, if they write lengthy and well-thought-out responses to your email, there’s a good chance that they develop thoughts best in writing and prefer the written medium for thinking things out (rather than thinking out loud with someone). In that case, you can probably rely on email to have substantive discussions.

The principle in both cases is to identify the other person’s preferences and reflect them in your correspondence.

To increase the chances that you’re talking someone’s language, pay attention to their emailing style and mirror it. In psychology, mirroring is our unconscious tendency to copy the nonverbal cues of someone we’re interacting with, which builds rapport and a sense of familiarity. Bring this technique to your email-writing by paying attention to how formal or informal the person you’re corresponding with is. If they write short, serious sentences, reconsider those emoji and exclamation marks. If they send long, engaging prose, then take an extra minute and expand on your one-line response.

Getting Personal

Using your personal style to get what you want by email is like any other skill: You’ll master the art the more you practice it. Invest time upfront to learn how to do it right, and it’ll save you time for eternity.

So pay attention this week to the emails that you send.

Are you writing notes that are easy to scan? When you look at your inbox, which subject lines jump out? How do the people you’re corresponding with tend to communicate, and how are you mirroring their style?
Let us know in the comments below, and let’s keep building our email toolkit!

Lead photo by Jonny Hughes

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