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  • Madelyn Blair

Headlines, Subject lines and Titles that Say Nothing Are Wrecking My Productivity




I’m tired of headlines and subject lines that are designed only to ‘attract’ my attention regardless of how consistent with the message they may be or not. When I see things like ‘Disaster’ or ‘You shouldn’t have to put your life on the line to be a hero’ or ‘Abandoning the cause’ or … What each of these is doing is using key words that drag you in – disaster, hero, abandon.

They are not written to serve in the selection of reading but to entice you to open the email or article. I know. I know. Editor’s will say, “That’s what they're supposed to do!” While I appreciate this perspective, it is unconscionable to mislead the reader. Entice, but then deliver. If the menu says that I’m going to get roast chicken, I better not be served boiled ham.

We all have too many things to choose from. As of this writing, I get on average 25 emails per hour, and that is after my filters have already eliminated many emails from my Inbox automatically. That means that, if I wish to be conscientious, I must consider each of them before reading more or trashing directly. I trash well over 80%, because when I choose to read, I read. And I can’t read them all even when my objective is to keep myself current.

This is particularly important during this time

The current pandemic demands that we have to know what is good and what is bad practice in order to assure that our lives and those of our families or our staff remain as safe as possible. The news on COVID is more than ample and confusing. How do you make good decisions if data is sparse?

The social issue of racism in this country has escalated and our understanding of poverty and justice systems, as well as, race has been enhanced – but only if we are reading broadly and regularly.

Last but not least, this is an election year. The founders of our country believed that good citizens need to be informed. Their thought was that without taking the time to become well-informed, how could a citizen act responsibly? It was true at our founding, and it is true today. It has always been true that the responsibility of being a good citizen goes well beyond not breaking any laws. These are times when I must keep myself as well informed as I can. That means reading across as many perspectives as possible, and there’s a lot to read.

I hope you see my point. There are more newsworthy changes in a single day than I can ever remember. If I desire to be an informed citizen, if I desire to keep my understanding of events current, or simply if I desire to be a true lifelong learner, I have to be selective in what I read. The headline or subject line is an important part of that selection process.

There are many solutions

  • Scientists must read many articles in order to remain current with findings from other researchers in their fields. Scientific papers use titles, abstracts, and keywords or tags to help readers select. They even organize the text so that the main conclusions can be found with ease. This allows researchers who must review hundreds of papers a way to select intelligently.

  • Well-written news articles have the main points in the first paragraph or two. You read them, get the message, and make an informed decision as to whether you wish to read the entire article. Some publications include a sentence that expands on the title to make it clear about the content.

  • Books have subtitles, book jackets, tables of contents, and introductions to help a reader decide if they will read the entire book.

  • Emails have the subject line to tell you why you should open it in order to read. Emails where the author does not think about the reader when composing the subject line are being irresponsible. The reader opens the email out of respect for the sender only to find it has no currency to the moment. There are also the ones where the email looks like a response to a thread and is really the sender being lazy.

Why with all the amazing talents we have today, do we continue to push headlines and subject lines designed only to tease rather than inform with no respect for the reader? Our time is misspent when we must open the article or email only to see that it is not what it appeared to be. Multiplied by the number of times this occurs means that a 10 second action becomes an hour or more over the course of the day.

Actions to take

I challenge myself when writing an email to see if I can put the entire message into the subject line. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, everyone benefits. I also challenge myself to title my blogs with something that both attracts the reader and is delivered on through the blog. Tell me if I did on this one. Please.

How do you help the reader of your communications?

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