I’ve told you how much email I receive. And I’m only a ground-level Program Manager. You should expect real decision makers to get three to five times that amount. With that much information load, reading isn’t really a first-strike option for dealing with an inbox – it’s a last resort. How can you ensure that your carefully-crafted communication is going to get noticed?
I’ve got a few tips for you, really more a set of principles around communicating in an Outlook-enabled world. While I’ve spent my last few years acquiring and using most of these skills at Microsoft, I think they can equally apply to companies of almost any size or culture.
This first one is about Toasts – the little on-screen notifications. Let’s start with a basic premise: You want people to read the emails you send. If that’s not your goal, best to move onto another blog post.
But if you want to make sure you stand out, to rise above the thousands of emails that swamp the radars of the mighty every day, here are the rules of the game.
Cold Callers Get it Done in One
Odds are you know the ubiquitous Toast Notification: it’s the little *blurk* that shows up at the bottom-right of your screen when someone sends you a mail whenever you’re not looking at your inbox.
Executives get them, too. Everyone on the network does. And everybody is going to take the same 30 milliseconds to decide whether your email looks like something they should read. If you’re trying to get a decision maker involved in looking at a proposal for the first time, you need to make things clear, quickly.
There are three parts to the Toast:
The Subject Line
An Outlook toast notification gives you about ten words worth of subject – a little over 40* characters. Anything beyond that gets truncated down to “…”, at best making you look like you’re rambling, at worst drudging up bad memories of the guy in college that always lost his train of thought.
The best subject lines ensure a project, technology, or email alias and some kind of action or situation collide in an interesting way. This is more a question of memetics than anything, subject to the particulars of your own company and culture.
Think: What’s going to pop in twelve words?
For those of you into categorization (or histrionics), prefixing your subject with formal-looking directives such as “Please Review” has been of dubious value in my experience, even when combined with other types of “salsa” like flags or priority marks (bang-mail). Use at your own risk.
The body of the toast is auto-populated with the opening text of your email – whatever it is that’s at the top of the body of the email. It will show either the first 80 characters of your email, if you keep it all on one line, or the first two lines of no more than 40 characters each, whichever reaches the bottom of the toast first.
You don’t get any text colors, sizes, fonts; nothing but glyphs in standard typeface to make your statement. Since you’re trying to get your mail read, ideally the body text is going to expand on the subject you’ve already written, conveying importance, urgency, and incentive.
Think: What text will expand the subject to inform and compel the viewer to open your mail, in 40 words, 80 if necessary?
For clever types who prefix their mails with banner images, note that banners don’t show in toasts, but alt-text does. If you absolutely must have a banner, right-click on the banner image while you’re composing your email, select “Format Picture”, choose the “Alt Text” option. It will prefix “Title:” and “Description:” onto whatever you type into the title and description boxes, so consider a clever tag line. Think of it as a tradeoff – how badly do you want the banner?
Everything Else: Not in the Toast
Perhaps it goes without saying, but everything else in your email, including your TO: list full of important people, your excellent analysis, your painstakingly-created charts and figures…none of it is in the toast. Absolutely none of it will enter the eyeballs of those decision makers you want to convince unless they click that toast.
Remember to convey a company-culturally-relevant subject line and a brief subject-expanding sentence or two at the start of the body of your email, and you’ll increase the odds you’ll get picked out of the pile and read. Maybe not all the way through, but that’s a topic for next time, when we’ll talk about using groups and spiral decision making in email as an alternative to cold calling.
Good luck, and get plenty done. Viva Outlook!
* It’s really more like “between 40 and 50 characters” for subject and body lines by my experience, but the Toast displays in a variable-width font, so unless your subject and body is just a bunch of exclamation points, stick with 40 characters per line as a good conservative estimate.