Framing Your Email Message


Skillful writers do their readers, and themselves, a favor by effectively framing their messages. They let their readers know at the outset precisely where they are going. Whether the message is an email, letter, proposal, news release, or PowerPoint, effective framing enhances the writer’s impact and enables the recipient to sail along without expending extra effort.

Ah yes, the essay

Remember when we learned how to write an essay back in middle school? A central ingredient was the thesis sentence, or topic sentence, which always appeared in the first paragraph – often in the opening sentence. Then, in the classic design, the next three paragraphs supported the thesis, and the conclusion creatively echoed the beginning. The theme of the essay was its spine.

Does this academic lesson have any application today when we are madly composing and reading email messages all day? Absolutely. In fact, email is the perfect medium to illustrate the importance of framing the message.

Subject line as thesis sentence

Where is the “thesis sentence” in an email? The subject line, of course. This means that rather than underusing that commanding space with a few generic words and then really getting to the heart of the matter in the body of the email, we should give the reader a helpful head start in the subject line.

Suppose you are sending Dan an email because you suddenly hope to add an item to a meeting tomorrow morning. Knowing that Dan has been putting together a packed agenda and won’t see your email until the end of the day, will you make your subject line one of these?

 What about the meeting? (In fact, Dan might not even know which meeting you’re referring to.)
Breaking news Okay, that’s intriguing … and really vague.
Need a favor Dan is not likely to be in a charitable mood if he sees this at 5:30 and has eight other emails to read before he leaves.
You’re not gonna believe this I hope Dan is your best friend at work.
Tomorrow’s agenda Now we’re finally getting warm. But we can do better.

A trick to effective emailing is allocating several extra seconds to the crucial task of composing the subject line. That takes discipline because we’re often in a rush to start composing the message, but remember the thesis sentence concept. Devoting extra seconds to the subject line winds up saving time because we’ve established the theme before the message section even begins.

So how’s this? Time for extra agenda item tomorrow? Notice that this subject line conveys much more information – and a pleasant, professional tone because of the question mark. We’re not demanding extra time on the agenda; we’re hoping for it.

Just don’t ruin it

So now we have a real ace of a subject line, but let’s maintain our discipline. If we next write something like I apologize for this last-minute request, but something important just came up that really needs to be discussed tomorrow morning because it affects nearly everyone on our team, we have taken nearly 30 words saying what we had pretty much covered in the subject line. We get points for acknowledging that we’re putting the squeeze on, but we haven’t earned any other points.

Trick #2

The one-two punch to writing compelling, economical emails is taking those extra seconds to create an informative subject line and then complementing the subject line. Don’t simply repeat it with more words.

Then what would complement Time for extra agenda item tomorrow? Obviously, Dan is now intensely curious why we want to disrupt his meticulously planned agenda, so he deserves to know what’s up. Maybe it’s this: Because the Indians just scheduled their championship parade the same day as our annual meeting, we need to determine an alternative date.

When our subject line and opening sentence cover that much ground, we often have little more to write before we hit “send.”

In next week’s post we’ll look at additional ways to frame our message.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at

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