How to Write an Email Subject Line That Could Get You Promoted

Corporate VPs get so much email, they can't possibly read it all. Here's how to cut through the clutter and impress them.

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By Jenny Wood

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Your boss will open any email you send them. Your boss's boss's boss might not.

That's a problem you want to fix. Your career could depend on it.

This may not be the reality at small companies, where a VP reads every internal email that comes her way. But at a giant corporation like Google, where I work, it's simply the reality. Imagine unplugging for a week away with your kids, and then coming back to a mountain of laundry and 462 unread emails. That's what a corporate VP is dealing with every afternoon.

Compounding this problem is that people on the corporate ladder are constantly seeking recognition for their work, because that's the pathway upwards. You want that attention because you're working on cool stuff! You inspired Engineering to fix the product and reduce customer care contacts by 12%, and that project might nudge you up to the next performance rating bucket at your annual review.

To get noticed, you must win a competition for attention. You must woo your corporate executive to open your email. You have but one chance to grab your reader's attention, and that chance is your subject line.

Here are three things you can do to nail it.

1. Start with a call to action

When you email your boss's boss's boss, think of it like a marketing email. You are the product being marketed. And if you're at all versed on email marketing 101, you know the first lesson in getting someone's attention: You need a strong call to action.

A call to action asks the reader to do something — share, sign up, give feedback, or anything else. But so many subject lines lack them.

I'm high enough in the corporate ladder that I am someone's boss's boss's boss, and as I look at the first 100 emails in my inbox now, I see that only two have a call to action. The remaining 98 are less action-oriented, like, "Thursday's leadership meeting" or "Dashboard use cases." That doesn't urge me to do anything.

Use a call to action to inspire your reader to read on. "Thursday's leadership meeting" could become, "Please add agenda items to Thursday's leadership meeting," and "Dashboard use cases" might be more interesting as "Please give feedback on dashboard use cases."

Of course, the act wears thin if every email has a call to action; there are times when it is simply not needed. Use it when you really want your audience to respond or do something.

2. Emphasize what's in it for them

Not every email to your boss's boss's boss should be about how great you are. But every email can display how attentive to detail you are.

Consider this situation: Maybe you're emailing colleagues about the Intern Development Day initiative you led. You might be tempted to write "Intern Dev Day" as your subject line — but that's a missed opportunity to serve your audience (which might include that VP you want to impress).

Instead of announcing "Intern Development Day", take it a step further to clarify why the reader should care about this Intern Dev Day in the first place. Maybe your senior VPs can leverage the cool idea the interns came up with and apply it to their own business strategy. In that case, the subject line "Interns thrive during Dev Day; leverage their efficiency ideas" signals to the reader what's in it for them.

If you want to go a step further, don't send a mass email at all — instead, customize the email for different audiences. If you are writing to the VP of the finance department, for example, your subject line might be, "Help our interns implement Dev Day idea to reduce costs by 2%." When a senior executive has hundreds or thousands of people in their org, chances are they'll be most interested in emails from those who offer a direct way to help them, save them time, or save the company money.

3. Declutter the subject line

If your VP has 462 unread emails, you can bet that she isn't prioritizing what I call the "game of telephone subject line." It reads like this: "FWD: FWD: FWD: RE: FWD 1:1 Agenda" — even if, deep down on that thread, there's evidence of the strong relationship you've built with Sales.

If you're about to forward an email up the chain, get rid of that stuff! Consider your subject line like a blank canvas.

If this email is important enough to send to someone senior, gently knock out that FWD: FWD nonsense and utilize the precious real estate for something more enticing like, "Great progress on Sales relationship."

Changing the subject line also makes it easy for others to send your email up the chain. After all, most weeks you are not emailing your boss's boss's boss directly. However, if you change the subject line to something with more allure, you nudge your boss one step closer to passing your email along on your behalf. That has even more weight: Now your email also has your boss's vote of support.

With tactics like these, you're doing a lot of work in a small space. You're grabbing attention with a call to action, emphasizing what's in it for your recipient, and getting to the point without clutter. Most importantly, senior leadership is paying attention to your awesome work. That will pay dividends during your performance review.

Jenny Wood

Founder, Google's Own Your Career program

Jenny Wood is the founder of Google's Own Your Career program. Jenny started as an entry-level employee at Google and is now an executive who leads an operations team that helps drive tens of billions of annual advertising revenue. She is a zucchini bread connoisseur and is forever curious about how people and organizations work. She previously led research at Harvard Business School and has written for Harvard Business Publishing. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and two young children and is an FAA-licensed pilot (for fun).

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