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We’ve all experienced the frustration of sending an email and then checking later to see if the recipient read it … only to be told no. The usual excuses are that either it didn’t seem important at the time, or they had other things to read first. Or even that it just didn’t seem interesting enough to get past the opening line.
What if you have an important email to send but don’t want to sabotage its chances of getting read? A lot of my emails deal with Internet and online security matters, so it’s important to me that they get read.
So I started researching the most often used opening phrases that will almost guarantee that your email is ignored. Some of these phrases seem so ordinary that we can’t conceive why they could be viewed as a waste of time. But that’s the point … opening phrases should grab attention, not cause the reader to move on to the next email. That is especially true if the email is genuinely important in some way.
We all get cold emails from people we don’t know, and we’re all incredibly good at sniffing out boilerplate openings and forced friendliness. Even if we do keep reading, canned openings negatively impact our impression of what is to come — and make it much less likely we’ll respond positively to the actual message of the email.
Think I’m wrong? Tell me how many times you’ve seen the following opening lines in an email and still kept reading.
“I thought I would circle back …”
Yes, because I didn’t respond the first time you emailed. But why will I respond this time… especially when the rest of your email is just copied and pasted from your original email?
In the same vein, this won’t work either:
“In case you missed this …”
Maybe I did miss this.
Or maybe I wasn’t interested.
Occasionally the recipient may have missed your original email. But know the person you’re targeting. If it’s someone who gets dozens of unsolicited emails a day, then his lack of response doesn’t mean he missed it. He didn’t respond because he gets too many emails to respond to each one individually. If he’s interested, he’ll respond.
And just in case he really did miss it, find a more creative way to send another email. “In case you missed this” only ensures that even if he does see your second email, he’s not going to read it.
And that’s also true for:
“I’m just following up …”
Occasionally a follow-up is warranted. If I said I would do something, and I haven’t, by all means, please follow up. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I sometimes do forget.
But if you’re just “following up,” or “circling back,” or finding out if the recipient “missed this,” find a more creative opening line.
Look at what you wrote in the first email. In all likelihood it was benefit-driven — for you. Find a way to benefit the recipient.
“I hope this finds you well.”
I get this one all the time. While I appreciate the sentiment (yes, I’m doing just fine, thank you), I immediately think two things. I first wonder if the sender just finished a Jane Austen novel, but more important, “I hope this finds you well” screams “We don’t know each other.”
And while every new friendship has to start somewhere, “I hope this finds you well” is unlikely to be the place.
That’s also true for:
“I hope you had a great weekend.”
Fine if it comes from a friend (even though none of my friends ever open an email that way). Otherwise it’s just forced friendliness. Asking “How was the new action film you saw last night?” shows you know me personally. Asking “How is your next series of articles coming?” shows you know me professionally.
Granted, “I hope you had a great weekend” is an attempt to be friendly. But really: Do you expect people to respond? Do you really want to know about their weekend? Nah. What you really care about is how they respond to the meat of your email.
In time, some professional relationships do also become personal. But when the initial contact is through email, the relationships always start as a professional one. Work to establish that first. Then a friendship might follow.
But not if you pretend that we’re already friends.
“You might be surprised to learn …”
No, I won’t be, because I won’t read the rest of your email. Like fake friendliness, interest-starters feel canned and forced. If I might be surprised, shoot, go ahead and surprise me with your opening line.
The same is true for:
“Did you know …?”
Granted, asking a question can be a way to engage readers. But not in the opening line of an email since what we all do know is that whatever you claim we don’t know is something you will then solve for us, probably for a fee.
“Did you know” and, “You might be surprised to learn” are clear signals that a sales pitch is coming. Maybe that’s not your intent — but we’ll assume it is.
And a couple quick ones:
“My name is …”
I already knew that. Your name appears in the sender field.
“I would like to introduce myself …”
Sometimes introducing yourself first is OK, but in most cases the best approach is to say what you can do for the recipient (or what you want) first.
Then, if we’re interested, we’ll be willing to check out whether you’re the right person to provide it (or are someone we want to help).
This is always followed by “but …” (which is a lot like saying, “I know this is going to hurt your feelings, but …”), Acknowledging a situation and then choosing to ignore that situation is an off-putting way to start.
Instead, respect the recipient’s time by getting to the point: The less fluff, the better.
“I want to ask a quick favor.”
At least in my experience, a “quick favor” never turns out to be quick. And neither does the ‘ask’ itself.
If you sincerely know the person, and sincerely need to ask a favor, then pick up the phone and call that person. Favors should not be treated as something you get for free, and asking for one by email leaves that impression.
You may have great intentions. You may mean extremely well. You may only be trying to be friendly, courteous, and professional.
But if you start your emails with opening lines like the ones above, most people will assume the worst — not the best.
Find a different way to be friendly, courteous, and professional — especially if your message is truly important and needs to be read.
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