This is Why They’re Not Reading Your Emails

I have a confession to make. I have over 3,000 unread emails in my inbox. It’s probably the same with you. And we know why. Most of these unread emails are routine notifications, receipts, and people trying to sell stuff.

That’s my personal inbox, so I’m OK with that.

It’s not OK if you have hundreds of unread work-related emails. That’s a signal of something being not quite right. If you’ve categorized hundreds of workplace correspondence as unimportant or ignored them altogether, there’s a whole lot of time-wasting going on somewhere. Someone out there thinks there’s something you should know and you obviously don’t think so.

The real question is — is your email one of those, sitting in someone’s never-to-be-opened Unread Emails folder? How do you get people to attach some importance to your emails and actually read them?

1. Don’t send too many

I once had a boss who told me that she immediately opened every email from me right away since she instantly knew it was important. Why? Because contrary to her desire to be copied on all emails (yes, she actually told all her middle managers to do this), I refused to copy her on trivial, routine, or non-important matters. Sending unimportant correspondence is just training people to ignore all your future emails. When they see your name, you want an “Important” flag to go off in their heads.

2. Don’t send to everyone (Reply To All is not your friend)

This is tied to number 1. I’ve seen more abuse of Cc and Bcc in emails in my lifetime than there is junk in a junkyard. For the record, people in the “To” line are those you expect to respond. Those in the “Cc” line need to know but don’t need to respond, and those in the “Bcc” are your secret recipients. The other recipients won’t see who is in the Bcc line. Bcc is considered kind of unethical in some settings and can create suspicion and mistrust in an organization. I’ve seen a major lawsuit arising because someone who was in the Bcc field replied to all. Oops.

3. The shorter, the better

Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter. Anything that takes more than 3 minutes of my attention had better result in me getting wealthier, be of direct and obvious benefit to me, or be a funny cat video. That’s what your average 20 or even 30-something year old is thinking. Anything else is seen more as an annoyance.

4. Check your spelling, punctuation, and grammar

Some people (this is something of a confession) are grammar-Nazis. If you’re not sure whether to use “effect” or “affect”, “you’re” or “your”, “there”, “their” or “they’re”, then you run the risk of people not taking your emails very seriously. Admittedly, some of the smartest people I know are poor spellers. They may be dyslexic or simply have another first language. But I didn’t always acknowledge that, and your audience may not, either. Accept that writing may not be your strength and get an independent proofreader, like spellcheck or Grammarly.

5. Make your subject line useful

Humans are inherently selfish. Not because they want to be, but because they’re evaluating, “Why is this worth my time?” And with the increasing reality that time is money, a vague or spammy-looking subject line will only get them to ignore you. “Changes to Payroll Procedure — Response Required” is more likely to be opened than “Weekly Departmental Update”.

So do the rest of us a favor. Only send us an email if you need to, and if we need to read it. If you have to send lots of emails for work, remember that the job isn’t actually sending the email — it’s getting people to read it.

I train and write about technical and soft skills at work, leadership, culture, language & history. New ideas are my oyster.

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