Email has become the standard communication tool in organisations – and yet the majority of us email poorly. We tend to use it as a replacement to conversations when it’s really a replacement for letters, but that’s a whole other article.

There are a number of rules people need to know (only discuss one subject per email; don’t be a passive-aggressive BCC user; don’t Reply All unless you need to etc.) but the most important rule is getting to the point!

Craft informative subject lines

The subject line of an email should do two things for the recipient(s):

1) It should let them know the topic discussed in the email.

2) It should give them some indication of the action you require them to take, so they can prioritise.

Some people receive hundreds of emails a day, and your message can easily become lost in the noise of all those requests. Providing recipients with a very simple statement about the subject and the action you require them to take will help your email stand out – making it easier for them to prioritise it in their day.

Consider including clarity in the subject line:

– Quarterly report is not nearly as informative as

– Quarterly figures for Board required by 5pm Friday

Assuming this is a standard request, the recipient might not even need to open it. If it isn’t standard, they at least have an idea what you want and by when.

Other words you should consider including: 

– Decision required

– Action needed by

– Response required

– For info only.

Ask first

Once you’ve made it through the noise of the inbox, you need to get straight to the point with the details of the ask. Don’t start with the preamble. Remember, the person you are asking is as busy, if not busier than you – so help them help you by starting with the ask.

Imagine you are on the receiving end of a stream of emails that all want something from you. Every email you open starts with the explanation, which can be a paragraph or two of context in some organisations. So you trawl through the chaff and finally get to the ask. It’s at this point you discover:

a) you could have answered this in 30 seconds and gotten on with your life 

b) it’s a task you delegate to one of your team, so you didn’t need to read it 

c) they sent it to the wrong person – you’re Sarah in marketing not finance!

By asking first and explaining second, you can reduce this potential frustration and become a person that people appreciate in the workplace – rather than being someone people dread seeing in their inbox.

And yes, I know they can skim past the preamble to find the ask, but it’s your job to make their lives easier! You want something from them after all.

What it looks like

Let’s assume that we work with Phil and this is a regular request:

Hi Phil,
I need the figures for the last quarter by COB Friday to include in the board report.

I know you usually receive this request from Will, but since he is away I’m doing the Board papers for this quarter. I need to finalise the contract report by Monday afternoon for review by Sue next week, so I will need your figures by COB Friday for inclusion. 

By simply flipping the usual order of things, you can save Phil some time – okay this is a short example, but you get the idea. Of course, if it’s not a standard request you should include more details – let them know exactly what is required, to what standard/format, for what audience, and by what date/time. Putting the ask first does not remove the need for this, it simply moves it in the structure:

Hi Phil,
Can you please send through the breakdown of our contract expenditure for July-September for inclusion in the new board report? I need this by 5pm this Friday.

The Board has requested a new quarterly report that provides details on all our current contracts, following the incident in May this year. I know you were part of the initial discussion into the requirements, below is the agreed table that needs to be populated…

If there is a need for some context before the ask, keep it very simple:

Hi Claire
I’m doing the consultation for Project Agility and need to organise a time with you and your team.
Can you let me know by Thursday which days would work between now and the 27th for a 2-hour consultation session?

Project Agility is… (provide detailed background).

This way Claire knows exactly what you need from her and her team without having to read through the full background of the project, which she might already know.

Bookend the context

It helps to bookend any additional information by reiterating the request at the end of the email – making it doubly clear what you need, and by when. Of course, you do not need to do this if your context is only a sentence or two.

With the request above for Claire, you would repeat the ask after the background information on the project, providing more detail:

Again, can you let me know by Thursday 5th October which days would work between now and the 27th October for a 2-hour consultation session with your team?

This way, if she had to read a chunk of context you are bringing the ask back into focus for her. In our world of constant distractions, this can be an important step to make sure something is done.

Remember, you probably aren’t the only person asking your recipient for something via email. You want to make your email easy to deal with, so it gets done quicker. Putting the ask first is a great way of doing that – and a well crafted subject line is the icing on the cake.


  • Kylie Dunn

    Writer, blogger and My Year of TED creator; trying to help other people live more fulfilling lives

    In 2011, I started a year-long experiment with my life. Based on TED Talks, My Year of TED has had a profound impact on who I am and how I see myself in the world. You can learn more about it and get resources to help you find your own fulfillment on my website. Or watch my TEDxHobart talk for an overview.