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Sexy Intro’s: How to Get the Wrong Reaction March 11, 2013

Posted by thefieldgeneral in Communication.

Sometimes when we write we try to make the intro, or email subject line, or title, “sexy.” We want it to be a real attention getter. The problem with this is that it often causes confusion, anger, or other unconsidered problems. How do we maximize the impact of our intro while minimizing confusion?

Thanks to Mick Amato @http://www.flickr.com/photos/mickamato/

Thanks to Mick Amato @http://www.flickr.com/photos/mickamato/

The other day, U.S.A. Today had the headline “What do surgeons leave behind?” What does that make you think about? My Mom is a surgeon so I thought about all the sacrifice doctors make. The cost in family time, energy, and emotional stress. My wife assumed that the story was about the medical waste created by modern medicine. What was the article about? It discussed the ongoing and preventable problem of surgeons leaving sponges and other medical implements inside a patient when doing surgery. Imagine my disappointment in finding, not a piece hailing the wonderful work and sacrifices made by my Mom, but instead a piece disparaging the carelessness of the medical profession.

We often cause the same issue. The very title of this piece is a good example. “Sexy Intro’s” makes you think I’m going to be giving out pick up lines. “How to Get the Wrong Reaction” makes it sound like bad pick up lines. Of course this topic is a bit different; I hope that the readers aren’t too disappointed.

Email subjects exhibit some of the worst cases of this behavior. “Emergency!” will certainly get you some attention. So will “Catastrophic Loss” or “Major Error”. However, such email titles are rarely accurate. At best, you get a boy-who-cried-wolf affect, where your credibility is hurt. At worst, you’ve got an angry executive who dug up your boss to explain this “Major Error”.

Here are some suggestions on how to get the attention you need without getting the wrong attention:
1. Be Specific.
Most misinterpretations occur due to too little information. “Loss of Data” is quite different than “Recoverable Loss of Data from drive D on Server X. Anticipated recovery 4 hours.” Most execs are going to read the title and decide whether to dig deeper. The first item forces them to search (probably on the blackberry) for the real issue. The second gives it all to them in a sound bite and they can intelligently decide to dig deeper or not. “The things doctors leave behind in patients after surgery” would have clarified the meaning of the newspaper article for me.
2.Leave out unspecific adverbs
Catastrophic, Bad, Horrible, Faster, Slower, are all weak choices of words in a subject. Adverbs are words that describe the degree of a verb or adjective (or adverb). It is hard to make clear and specific value statements in a subject line. Each person interprets them differently. (What does faster mean to you?)Leave out the adverbs. Your English teacher will remember you fondly and you won’t be making arbitrary value statements.
3.Be Careful with Department Specific Jargon.
One department in my company has “RED MEETINGS! MANDATORY!” This just irritates me. First of all what is a “RED MEETING”. Second, it’s not mandatory for me, we don’t even report to the same person till we get to the Senior Executive VP of a 35,000 employee company. It always makes me think, do I have something important to do at that time, like lunch.
4.Do not bold, !!!!!, or otherwise emphasize your message
If your reader cares enough to read your email or piece, they will at least glance at the subject/title. Unless you have a pre-established system, Bold, Underlined, or emphasized!!!!! text is very annoying. It is probably not a good idea to get your audience in a bad mood before they’ve read your important email. They will be mad at you, not the problem.
5.Think about audience context before sending stuff out.
As in my example with the newspaper story, my context totally changed my interpretation. Take a second to consider your reader’s context. How will they take your message? You will still get occasional confusion, but taking a moment to consider the receiver should help.

Have you ever sent an email who’s subject was confusing or read something that turned out to not be what you expected?

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