ACTION REQUIRED: Read my email PLEASE! (Part 1)

Have you ever sent out an email like this?

Subject: Prep for client mtg next week and one-on-one mtg times

To prepare for our meeting, would each of you please provide:

  1. Your updated bio
  2. Any agenda items in addition to those listed below
  3. Let me know your availability for a one-on-one meeting anytime Mon-Thurs next week.

Are you happy with your response rates?  My guess is—you’re not.

Banging My Head Against the Wall

A friend recently shared his thoughts on the lack of responses to his emails.  He likened it to “banging my head against the wall”.

He said he wrote short, simple sentences, highlighting key action items, providing his phone number for calls. His results?  “Nobody reads what I wrote—and nobody calls.”

As a result, he found himself wondering things like: “Am I wasting their time? Are they so busy they can’t read my message? Is it that they don’t respect me? Or the message? Don’t they care? Have they done some calculation about the risk or cost of not answering me? Would they answer it if it came from their boss?

I can relate.  And I bet you can too.

Email Overload?

Are people really so overloaded that they can’t respond to a simple note?   The term “email overload” garners 438,000 hits on Google.  But there are other causes – too busy, not focused, unavailable, ignored on purpose, have nothing to say yet, to mention a few.  Take your pick.  We don’t really know why people don’t respond, or ignore certain portions of emails.

There’s a plethora of advice on sending and handling incoming email, some of which was discussed in Think Before Sending.  But there is very little on how to get your business (not outgoing marketing) emails read.  I decided to see what the experts say–and then ask you to weigh in.

Alesia Latson – More Time for You

I recently attended a great presentation by Alesia Latson, co-author of More Time for You. She had advice on addressing email overload; her favorite button on the keyboard is “delete”.   She’s not alone.  Her book and talk included how to sift through the important and urgent emails, and make sure that as recipients we weren’t missing something that had to be done.  Recently, I asked her how the sender could increase the odds that the recipient might actually read and act on the email.  Here are a few of her suggestions:

  • State “Action Required” in the subject line
  • Ask your colleagues what will get their attention
  • Keep it short
  • Put a date on when responses/actions are required and by whom

Robert Whipple – Understanding E-Body Language

Then I read Robert T. Whipple’s book  Understanding E-Body Language – Building Trust Online, and his article But I Sent an E-mail on That Last Week.   This book has a lot of suggestions on managing email, but only a few on getting them read.  The main point involves not being an email pest.  That’s a sure way to be ignored.  Here are some of the article’s great ideas.

  • Avoid long and complex emails
  • Follow up with a face-to-face (meeting or a call)
  • Add additional modes of communication besides email
  • Use clear formatting

Stever Robbins – Tips for Mastering Email Overload

A Harvard Business School article from 2004 by Stever Robbins, Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload, also had some good ideas.   Here are just a few of his suggestions:

  • Use a summarizing, rather than descriptive, subject line (e.g. use “Recommend we ship product April 25” rather than “deadline discussion”)
  • Orient the reader by giving enough context and background – don’t make them wade through numerous past emails
  • When sent to multiple people, tell each person specifically what you want from her/him
  • Send a separate message instead of using bcc
  • Separate topics into separate emails

These are all great ideas, and should help a lot.  But what do you do when you have followed much of this advice and your emails still go unheeded?  Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will ask the same three experts this question.  Meantime, what do you think?

15 replies
  1. ianbrodie
    ianbrodie says:

    Hi Stewart – great tips!

    Coincidentally I hosted a webinar last night with James Clear, author of How to Email Important People.

    On the webinar, James pointed out that since the key people we email are so busy, what can help get your email read (and responded to) is if it’s clear up front what sort of time commitment they’ll have to make by opening/reading it.

    So subjects like “3 interview questions”  or “what’s your 1-line response to this?” work.

    As, of course, does keeping your emails short and focusing on one subject only. I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve popped in my “to read” folder that have never made it out just because they look long and arduous to go through.



  2. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Always the contrarian, I find that ACTION REQUIRED and other urgent signals make me want to delete rather than read an email. Not sure what to make of that reaction, except perhaps that  I’ve gotten a few too many urgent requests for help  from Nigerian princes.  

    Looking forward to part II!

    And thanks for the additional tip, Ian.  I have found “A five-minute favor?” to be effective.

    • Stewart Hirsch
      Stewart Hirsch says:

      Sandy – I think “Action Required” is designed for internal emails, within companies.  So if you know me, and need me to do something, if I see an email from you that says Action Required, I’m more likely to pay closer attention – but if that doesn’t work for you, What will?  I promise not to ask you to take money out of Nigeria or some former Soviet country!

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:


    I find I do the same as Sandy. When I receive an email whose subject smacks of “spam” I interpret that as their asking me to delete it immediately…and I do.

    As for the one-line response, do we assume the sender and the receiver are on the same page (not always the case).

    The sender (feeling overwhelmed, stretched, stressed) might want a one-line response when more than that is called for (“Should we move out of the PC business?” exaggeration,  but it happens ).

    While we live in self-constructed prisons of “140 chaacters or fewer,” one-line communication is not the only way to deal with overwhelm (moving to only using smiling/frowning faces  is next?).

    Are there consequences for not responding? If one were in a face-to-face meeting, or on a phone consult and the “sender” asked for a response and none was forthcoming (except silence), what would that be like? We just allow it as one’s response to being busy, to being overwhelmed? What’s the diffference? Who decides the importance/urgency? What’s the culture around responding, or not responding, sending or not sending, around respect and disrespect, around being too busy or too distracted  to communicateuicate?

  4. monica seeley
    monica seeley says:

    Oh and by the way remember the more email you send the more your recevie.  Sloppy emails too can drive up the volume of emails  received.  The emphasis must be on right message right first time.

  5. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    Thanks for the tips Monica – curious what you think about the reverse – how do you get your emails read, especially by people who know you or work with you?  Would love to get your thoughts on that side of the equation.

  6. monica seeley
    monica seeley says:

    Hi Stewart,

    This is a hard one as its about changing the behavior of those who are too lazy to sort out their own inbox.   There are a few things you can do to influence the process.

    1.  In the subject-line add the words ‘Action needed by (eg Noon 28 August 2011).

    2.  Create an image of yourself as a trusted person so that when the recipient sees an email from you they know it serious and needs attention.  That means avoiding sending frivolous emails like jokes etc.

    3. Many people don’t open emails from PAs.  Sad I know, but in the UK this happens.  If you do use a PA/Assistant, make sure even if they prepare the email, that it comes from your mailbox.

    4.   Call then a few days/hours latter (depending on the urgency).

    5.  Give up conventional emailing and either resort to the phone only or use social media if they are on it eg LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter. Interestingly some people will ignore ordinary email but respond to messages sent via social media.


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