How to Write an Attention-Grabbing Email

April 7, 2020
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Forget gone in 60 seconds, when it comes to a cold email you have a teeny tiny fraction of that time to grab someone’s attention. Think of the amount of time it took you to read the title to this article—about three to five seconds. Most likely you knew within those first precious moments whether you were going to click through, or peace (rude). 

Now imagine that you are a high-level executive who is bombarded by thousands of emails a day. The amount of time you have to read through unsolicited emails is limited. Lucky for you, according to a study conducted by Staples, high-level executives read an average of 575 words per minute (take their test here, it’s fun, and let us know in the comments how you did), which means you might have a slightly longer shot at impressing them. But it’s still a flash. Let’s call it three seconds. 

So what do you do? Here are six steps to ensure that your recipient reads all the way to the bottom. 

1. DON’T CLICKBAIT YOUR EMAIL BUT…

The subject line is an underused resource. It should be succinct and informative. Unless you’re trying to get a job at Buzzfeed, “17 Reasons I Will Make Your Company Successful,” is not the way to go. Also avoid “cute” or “quirky” or telling someone you have a quick question—no such thing. The best subject lines don’t try too hard, but rather let your reader know exactly what they are opting into. Name-dropping is not horrible, but make sure you have a relationship with the person you reference. 

Every subject line should be different and tailored to whom you’re addressing. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and you don’t want to have a subject line that mirrors or matches ten other emails their inbox gets that morning. If you can tailor the subject line to a project the recipient is working on, that’s even better. For example, if I’m writing an editor or fellow writer I might say: Brainstorming How I Can Speed Up Your Editing Process. 

That’s an email I would open. 100%. (Someone please send me that email.) 

2. DEAR SIR OR MADAM…DELETED

Same goes for To Whom It May Concern. Sorry, but if you don’t have the right name, find it. The internet is a trove of info and sometimes you have to take a deep dive into its caves to get the right intel, but much like the truth, it’s out there. If countless people are sending generic emails, be the one who sticks out by figuring out the right person to send it to. Everyone (seriously, everyone) appreciates being addressed by name, and this shows that you went the extra mile to figure it out. And by all means, TRIPLE CHECK that you spell the damn thing correctly. We’ve all made that error and it’s a surefire way to get ignored.  

3. HI, MY NAME IS…DELETE!  

Skimming is a practice that we all use. What you need to use are standout words that grab the reader’s attention as they are hopping quickly over what you’ve written. “Hi, my name is,” is a waste of a second. Your name is in your signature, if they like what you have to say, they’ll find it. Instead opt for action sentences, like: “In the next two sentences, I will break down how I can grow your social media presence over 6 months.” 

4. GIVE CONCRETE EXAMPLES… OK, LISTENING

No matter how many times this info gets repeated, people still refuse to do it. An email that has no useful information is a waste of everyone’s time, including yours. If you’ve managed to hook the recipient with a great subject line, calling them by name, and a first sentence that slays, follow it up with info they can take to the bank. 

5. TO ATTACH OR NOT TO ATTACH 

If you’re sending an email to a potential employer, and there are no instructions as to whether they prefer resumes in the body of the email or as an attachment, do both. Some people hate opening attachments, others want the option to download and print it out. So, convert the file to a PDF (it should always be a PDF), insert it below your signature and also as an attachment. 

6. TAKE THE STEPS TO CUT OUT UNNECESSARY CORRESPONDENCE  

In a way, this might feel like putting the cart before the horse, but it’s a wild rat race out there. When someone writes me an email hoping to write for me, it never ceases to impress me when they say, “I’ve attached a piece I believe your readers will find interesting.” That cuts my time in half. I don’t have to write back and say, “Can you send me samples?” Even if the piece isn’t the right fit, or we’ve covered it already, I have the sample I need to move forward.  

You wouldn’t call someone to say, “I’m calling to schedule a time to talk.” You call to talk. Apply the same premise to an email. The takeaway should never be that you want to tell them what you can offer: show them. 

This story was originally published on February 16, 2016, and has since been updated.

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