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How to Get Employees to Read Your Emails

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“Getting people to actually read email messages”
Senior Advisor

Right. How can you advise people who refuse to read your advice, let alone take it?

Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when you can blame the messenger. Meaning email.

Email has been a victim of its own success. It’s so cheap, so fast, and so convenient that it’s become the default mode of communication. And, even though our private lives have been drifting towards social, our work lives still pretty much revolve around email.

The sheer volume of incoming email makes it impossible for most people to give each message their full and undivided attention. Which means they have to pick and choose. Which means some messages don’t get all the attention they call for. And some don’t get any at all.

So, what if it’s your email that keeps getting shuffled to the bottom of the pile? What if the multitasking eye of your audience routinely skips over important details? What can you do about that?

You could always ask people why they didn’t read the last email you sent. And what would have made it easier for them to read and absorb. If there’s a hidden obstacle unique to you and your crowd, that would be the way to uncover it.

However, if you’re like most people, your coworkers have a simple set of preferences for opening and reading email. Not everyone is conscious of his preferences or willing to admit to them. But in a time crunch, our minds take the path of least resistance, and the hard-wired habits rule.

Most people prefer:

  1. Personal emails to mass mailings,
  2. Short to long,
  3. Relevant to the task at hand to distracting.

Not exactly earth-shattering, right?

But now you see why long, distracting mass emails that make up 90% of our inboxes don’t stand much of a chance. And why should they? They don’t belong there anyway.

Consider that detailed information intended for a large group of people is better suited to a public forum, where it can be continuously updated and accessed at will. Like an intranet. A functional intranet platform can eliminate anywhere from 60 to 80% of companywide email. The remaining messages will automatically attract more attention.

A modern intranet is also great for team projects and discussion threads. There’s little more annoying than being cc’d on a mile-high stack of reply-to-alls. The worst part is that these email threads frequently include some really great points. What is the likelihood of everyone on the cc list fully grasping their significance? And what is the likelihood it will be remembered the next time the subject comes up? Or the next time another group faces a similar challenge?

As a society, we increasingly rely on asynchronous communication. We don’t consume information as it becomes available. We look for it when we need it. Unfortunately for our Senior Advisor, people are not going to just decide to start reading more emails. They will continue to read less. But they will communicate more through social collaborative platforms designed to integrate knowledge, not obliterate it.

But let’s say he’s stuck with email for now. Is there anything he can do to make himself less invisible inside the inbox? Let’s go back to our most common email preferences and see how we can use them to our advantage.

Personal Rather Than Mass

If you are emailing more than one person at a time, it helps if you’ve met everyone and made sure they want to be on the cc list. Have a relationship with them outside of email. Show them how much you care about your work and get a sense of what’s in it for them. If you treat your work relationships like any other personal relationships, rather than annoying chores, people will likely return the favor.

Short Rather Than Long

Much of the standard email etiquette applies here. Don’t try to cover multiple topics in a single email. Gage interest before showering the reader with details. Don’t dump everything you know on them all at once. Start with the bare minimum and let them come back for more. If you must use the long form, say so upfront and ask for your readers’ time and undivided attention.

Relevant Rather Than Distracting

What’s relevant to you may be distracting to others. However, a bit of relationship building helps bridge this gap as well. Get people excited about your project before you start emailing them.

You don’t need to follow all these principles all the time to succeed. If you generally keep your distracting emails short, your long emails personal, and your mass emails relevant, you’ll have pretty good results.

But suppose you can’t. Suppose the nature of your work makes it impossible for you to shorten or personalize your emails—or make them more significant to your readers. Then you must admit to yourself that you’re in the business of junk mail. Not because your emails have no value. But because your readers’ brain chemistry will treat your emails similarly to the way they treat holiday greetings from Amazon.

Now, the folks at Amazon have thought long and hard about the best ways to divert our attention. And you might as well benefit from their expertise. Junk-mailing has become an exact science, and the Internet is full of top-notch advice on this subject. So, I won’t dwell on it here, except for two points:

  1. Subject line
    The Subject line is not simply a way to trick people into opening your email. In fact, I don’t recommend using subject-line tricks, like symbols and highlights, or abusing trigger words, like URGENT, IMPORTANT, etc. The subject line is your sales pitch for what’s inside your email. It’s your one and only chance to get people to focus and pay attention before they start reading. If their brains are in scan-and-delete mode, they will need your (the writer’s) help to switch to read-and-absorb. And, by the time they open your email, it may already be too late.

    Use the full lengths of the subject line, if you have to, to make your case. For example, if you are HR and you have important news, don’t send it out under “Policy Updates.” Boil it down to a reporter-style headline, like “Itemized receipts required for expense reports.” Or tell them what's at stake: “Want your next paycheck? Read and sign these docs.”
  2. From
    The second most impactful part of your email is the sender’s name. It’s common knowledge that any person’s name usually works better than a faceless entity, like Corporate Communications or Office of the President. Even better if the majority of the recipients know the sender well. Have people who already command attention and respect send out important emails. If you are going to email under your own name, take the time beforehand to introduce yourself and explain your purpose.

Bottom line: there’s too much email. Anything you can do to communicate outside of email is to your advantage. Communication never happens in a vacuum, but always in the context of your relationships. Mind your relationships and communication will work itself out. Always put yourself in the reader’s mind. And never mince your words!


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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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