Subject line to salutation: Email rules to live by

Hosted by Neil Amato

With the advent of text messaging and other quick-response applications, email has taken on a different but still vital role in communication. Thinking strategically about what we write in an email, how we respond to messages, and how we sort our inbox can help us be more effective email users. Byron Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the director of presales and solutions at Botkeeper, shares email rules to live by.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why specific subject lines are important.
  • The value of email conventions to make team communication more efficient.
  • Why we shouldn’t judge daily productivity by the number of emails we read or write.
  • The value of reaching “inbox zero” status.
  • How automatic sorting or the use of email folders can help us be more efficient.
  • Why the emoji can be effective in an email.

Play the episode below:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at


Neil Amato: We are talking today about email, so we’ll start right at the top: subject lines. Why does a good subject line matter?

Byron Patrick: There’s a few reasons. For one, you want your email to be read, right? You sent it for a reason. When the subject line is “hi,” that doesn’t really inspire me to open the email. Not to mention, there’s plenty of people who will put the entire message into the subject line, which actually makes it really difficult to read. So, something quick, concise. You’re marketing to the receiver as to why they should open that. So inspire them to click. One other tip: People will put something into the subject line and then reference it in the body [of the email], assuming that the individual actually read the subject line. So if you say “AICPA” in the subject line and then in the body, “Will you be at the meeting?,” say, “Will you be at the AICPA meeting?” Reference it, so I don’t have to do the work to piece together the topic.

Amato: Then there’s another important part about subject lines, maybe in a previous email conversation, maybe in an article I read: If you don’t use a unique subject line, you could starve! Tell me about that.

Patrick: Yes, so, you know, Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, they all do groupings. It tries to group a conversation together to make it very easy to go through the thread. The problem is it basically uses the subject line to group. So if you sent me an email a month ago called “lunch” as the subject, and I haven’t deleted it, because of course we let our inbox turn into a pile. And then you send me another email later, or somebody else sends me an email and the subject is “lunch,” they will get grouped together as if it was the same thread.

So, make sure that you say “lunch at Dan’s Bakery” or Dan’s Diner or something where it’s not going to get grouped with another thread that you’ve already said, “No, I can’t make it,” and now this is a new request but you don’t realize it because it’s already been collapsed. That goes for meetings, client topics. Just make sure you’re doing something so you don’t get sucked into another generic thread.

Amato: That’s a good point, and we are recording this close to our lunch time, so Dan’s Diner is sounding really good to me. Again, that lesson, don’t use basic subject lines. Should there be rules that team members can all follow to make email communication more efficient. We all have our individual things that we like to do, but can those be standardized?

Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. I’m all about conventions within the organization. So if you do an all caps “FYI,” which basically means, “You don’t have to take action. You don’t have to respond. This is just to keep you informed.” Or maybe “action required” or “reply required.” Something so that I know when it lands in my inbox, I already know what to do with it without having to read through it. There’s nothing worse than getting an email that’s an FYI type email, and you’re reading multiple paragraphs wondering, “Is this urgent? Do I need to take action?” And then you get to the end and you’re like, “Well, there goes that five minutes of my time.” So, the “FYI” — maybe I can read it a little bit later.

It probably doesn’t work as well with external users, because they might not know the convention. But internally, within an organization, create some kind of convention at least to create some efficiency when prioritizing what you’re going to respond to and what you might just file away for a rainy day.

Amato: Have you ever gotten one of those emails where someone in the subject line used an acronym that you didn’t understand? Everyone understands FYI, but there are some times — you’ve got to set the rules for what those things mean.

Patrick: Oh, man. I know a few people who … We live in a world where text messaging and acronyms — IKR [I know, right?], or FWIW, for what it’s worth. And then you have those people who just make up their own acronyms based on maybe a phrase they say regularly. I’ve found myself Googling random acronyms with no clue of what it actually is. So, yeah, don’t use acronyms that people are never going to know or aren’t generally understood.

Amato: Right, that’s a good rule. You mentioned text messaging. Texts can be effective. They can be a quick way to get something from someone or to tell them something. Do you like communicating by email, now that we have texts, and Facebook Messenger and all these other ways, Twitter direct messages? Or is email just something that was cool in the ’90s and now it’s just passé?

Patrick: Do I like email? Email is a necessary evil, but effective when used properly. I look at direct messages, text messages, those are quick and simple. Don’t send me something that I’m going to have to recall or try to find in a few weeks. If you’re sharing facts or maybe something that I’m going to want to refer to, please don’t send me a text. There is nothing worse than scrolling through months of text messages trying to find that information. But email, you know, it’s great for capturing facts, confirming points, potentially having a dialogue. We may even discuss effective ways for handling a discussion thread within email. But it is overused. There are times when it’s not necessarily effective. But I guess I like it. I never thought about it that way.

Amato: Plenty of people still use it, so I guess somebody likes it.

Patrick: Well, there’s people who still use fax machines, too. I don’t know of anybody who likes those.

Amato: That’s for sure. Do you ever count the number of emails you reply to in a day or the number you receive and think about the amount of time you spent just in your email inbox?

Patrick: There was a time when I actually paid attention to that. For some reason, it was almost my best measure of productivity during a day: number of emails received, number of emails sent. Now, I find myself more counting how many emails are left at the end of the day. I tried very diligently to stay on top of my inbox and move things out that I no longer need to see, that I don’t have to take action on. So at the end of the day, it’s always kind of a gauge, like, “What’s left in the inbox: five, six?” If it’s 10 or 15, then my day may not be over. So I count more of what’s left now than the volume that comes through. I don’t want to know that number at this point.

Amato: So you’re closer to a zero-inbox guy than, “I don’t care if the number on my phone shows four digits”?

Patrick: You know what? I used to be that guy with 7,432 unread messages. I thought I was really effective working that way. I never knew how to dig out of it. Some people would say, “You just have to delete them all at this point and move on, because you will never get down.” And then I changed jobs, and it was an opportunity to start fresh. That advice to just wipe out the inbox and start over was right on point. Because you’re never going to dig out of that. So, start fresh.

If it does not require action from me, it’s out of my inbox. If there is still some sort of action required by me, then it stays in my inbox. I think it works pretty effectively.

Amato: How do you separate the emails that are important that come to you for work, versus the ones that might be, I don’t know, maybe an email newsletter that you subscribe to and that you intend to get to? Do you set them off by folders, do you have them kind of funneled in a certain way?

Patrick: Yeah, I do. In my previous role, we used Microsoft. So I had created a quick action that when I received newsletters or emails that I’d just look at later, that weren’t critical, I had a button that would automatically move it to my holding tank for those emails. Now, with Botkeeper, we use G Suite from Google, and it does a really good job of sorting those types of emails. So it’s not part of my primary tab of important information, but it’s easily available so I can recall it when I want to.

Amato: And if you see that something is important but it’s going to the other tab, you can make a setting change?

Patrick: Absolutely, you can pull it across into the primary. It will actually ask you, “Do you always want emails from Neil to go into your important inbox?” Of course I do.

Amato: Of course you want my emails to go there!

Patrick: Of course, absolutely.

Amato: Are there ways that just in the way we communicate by email, you can cut down on the number of replies and the back-and-forth, or does it depend on the topic and the person you’re talking to?

Patrick: Yes, I think there are absolutely things you can do. One of them is answer all of the questions the first time. I think people have a habit of receiving the email, they read the first question and they get locked and loaded on that first question. So they fire off a reply, but completely ignoring the next three that were in the email. And that means I’m going to receive another reply that says, “Hey, but how about these other things?” And it goes back and forth. If you read the full email and pay attention to all of the questions and respond appropriately, it will absolutely cut down on the back-and-forth.

The second strategy, though, from a sender’s perspective, is don’t put all the questions in paragraph form. It’s really easy for the questions to get lost in a paragraph. If you bullet out the questions, it’s easier for my eyes to sort those questions and then respond to all those questions in a single reply and cut down on the back-and-forth. And obviously, it’s more timely at that point.

Amato: We talked about text messaging earlier and about acronyms. Acronyms are probably something that came from text messaging and have bled into email use. Another thing from the text world that’s come into email use is the use of emojis. And there are some people who say this about email emoji use: Don’t use them. What do you say?

Patrick: I disagree entirely. I am a fan of the emoji. Email is bland and boring, unemotional. Emojis — “emo,” emotion — they allow you to give your email a little personality. I know people say, “Hey, don’t ever [send an emoji to] someone you don’t know.” Like, it’s OK if I’m emailing Neil, because we’re on that level. Personally, I disagree. I’ve never offended anyone using a smiley face. Now, I will tell you, there are people who over-emoji. Forty-seven smiley faces, a few little flowers, and an eggplant is just too much. That’s when I communicate with my kids, [when I] over-emoji.

You know, throw in a smiley face or a little winky or something, just to give that sentence some personality so it’s more than just black and white text.

Amato: That’s a good point. Email doesn’t have to be boring. It can be very straightforward, very transactional. But if you have a little bit of a rapport with someone, it helps build that rapport even more.

Patrick: Absolutely. Even if it’s, “Thanks for your help, smiley face.” Hey, you know, the smiley face kind of adds a nice touch, I think.

Amato: That’s true. It’s not just a bland word and then, “Regards, Byron.”

Patrick: Hah, “regards.”

Amato: I actually read something that — and I know a couple of people who use it as their set email salutation — but just the word “regards,” in I believe it’s the UK, it comes off as cold to people. I’m not trying to single out the UK, but some words mean different things to different people. Some people think “sincerely” is not very sincere. So, it depends. Maybe, “Smiley face, Byron” is the best way to please everyone.

Patrick: It won’t offend anybody. “Regards”? That might come off as a little dry to some folks.

Amato: We’re going to move on to a different topic related to email: out-of-office messages. What’s the big deal about how they’re phrased? Does it even matter?

Patrick: I believe it does. When I send someone an email and the response is, “I’m out of office,” and that’s it, I have no idea when they’re returning, no idea if I need to escalate my request to somebody else. It really doesn’t help me, other than to know my email is not going to get read. Or maybe it will, but I have no idea. So, I recommend … a little something worthwhile so the sender, who receives my out-of-office, knows what to do from there. If this is urgent, send it to so-and-so, and I’ll be returning on this date, and I’ll respond as soon as I can. So, make it valuable and useful. Don’t just leave it as a blah “I’m not here.”

Amato: What do you think about traveling to a conference but not setting an out-of-office email if you’re going to be out of the office for three days?

Patrick: That’s an interesting question, and it’s one I’ve struggled with in the past. I can tell you, when I first started my company, I wanted to kind of create the assumption that I’m always available to my customers. So if I was going to a conference, I’d be checking email. So, I figure, I’m not out of the office. I’ve flipped the script a little bit on that, because I would rather be overly cautious and set expectations: “I’m out of the office, but I’ll be checking email as frequently as I can.” That way, you at least know that, I’m not going to promise you 24-hour response time, but it may take me a little while to get back to you, because I am preoccupied with something. At this stage of my career, I’m a little more overly cautious about setting it, even maybe at times when it’s not necessary.

Amato: I think that’s a good point. And you mentioned, “When I started my company.” That’s a few iterations ago, just so we’re clear on timing?

Patrick: Yeah, 2008, so 11 years ago. And that was also pre-Slack and all of these many, many forms of communication. At that time, email absolutely was a primary avenue. Now it’s nauseating how many forms we have to track.

Amato: On the topic of out-of-office messages, I once read someone’s recommendation, “Be sure to check for any red lines.” What are red lines as it relates to an out-of-office message?

Patrick: Well, it’s funny. With Microsoft Office, or Outlook in particular, when you go to set your out-of-office responder, it doesn’t do the standard red-line squiggly for misspelled words. So, you find a lot of typos [in out-of-office messages]. I’m by no means a grammar Nazi, but I do like to at least spell my words properly, and I depend on spell-check. So I will often write my out-of-office in Microsoft Word so I can see if there’s anything spelled wrong, then copy and paste it into the setting. That way I have the assurance that things are spelled appropriately.

Amato: That’s a good point, and really that could be a good point for any important email. Is it just in the out-of-office that the spell-check doesn’t happen, or is it in a regular message?

Patrick: In a regular message, there is a [spell-check] setting that can be toggled to turn that off. I always make sure it does spell-check automatically before sending, which can get annoying if you have things that aren’t in the dictionary. So, you’re good within the body of the email. You’ll still get the squigglies. But for the out-of-office setting, for whatever reason, Outlook has not configured that to do that automatic spell-check.

Amato: So, yeah, if [an] out-of-office message has, “I’m out of the office” and no other info but they also misspelled “office,” that makes it even worse.

Patrick: Hopefully, there’s at least an emoji.

Amato: Yeah, that’s the one way to salvage an email with Byron. The first time you ever saw the acronym “OOO,” did you have any idea what it meant?

Patrick: I had no idea what it meant. That was definitely one of them that I was Googling. And frankly, I’m still not comfortable with it. I don’t know why.

Amato: I mean, it just looks like “Ooh” to me.

Patrick: That’s right. I just think of cows, because I just want to put an “M” on it. It’s kind of a weird acronym to use, in my opinion.

Amato: A little bit off the topic of email, why do you subscribe to this rule: You suggest a meeting, you create it? And then, how do you follow through on that?

Patrick: Right, so, if I request a meeting with you, I feel that it’s my obligation to send you the meeting invite. And I think there’s a lot of people out there who assume everybody’s just going to manage their calendar appropriately and put the appointment on their own calendar. Because we’re all adults and we should be able to do that. Well, we’re all busy adults. I believe whoever initiated the request for a meeting, appointment, phone call — whatever it is — should follow up with actually scheduling and sending that invite to the receiver. That way, you know. Worst-case scenario, you put it on [your calendar] and you got an invite from me. So now it’s twice — sure, you’re going to show up. I really believe that it’s somebody’s responsibility. So if it’s an important meeting to you, take the initiative to put it on my calendar.

Amato: What would you like to add or re-emphasize in closing?

Patrick: Pay attention to this stuff. I’ve shared this type of feedback with people, and they go, “Oh, I do that all the time.” And I go, “Yeah, you don’t send an appointment all the time. You’re exactly right.” Take a little bit of time to reflect on it, because if you can be more effective in your email communication, it helps out everybody. It helps out your team, it helps out your customers, it probably avoids a lot of miscommunication as well. So, don’t puff your chest and assume you do all of these things. I certainly — this has been a progression of learning and trying new things and paying attention to it, and I think a lot of people just don’t really pay too much attention. It’s a necessary evil, but I believe it’s one that you can do a better job with.

Amato: Byron, thank you so much.

Patrick: Oh, my pleasure, thank you.