URGENT: The incredibly simple trick to effective work email

Remote pressure.
Remote pressure.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Let’s face it. In-person workplace communication is fading with the growth of chat programs and remote work environments. That means more and more of our efforts to influence our co-workers and bosses is done virtually.

Here’s a simple, quick way to do it a little bit better that was spotlighted in a recent University of North Carolina qualitative study (paywall) on how people influence others in online work environments. The authors of the study interviewed 23 members of virtual teams about previous attempts to influence other members of their virtual teams. One technique? A well-crafted email consisting solely of a subject line. (Such emails are sometimes known as “zen mail.”) And, they found, the word “urgent” helped.

“Zen Mail with the word Urgent and the entire message in the subject line provides a quick jolt of pressure to get a target to realize the importance of a particular task,” the authors wrote.

An example:

Urgent: Final project approval needed before 6pm

That’s the whole email, but it’s all that’s needed. The key, of course, is the time-dependent quality of the “urgent,” which implies something must be dealt with forthwith. A MailChimp study from 2013 of 24 billion delivered emails found that including the word “urgent” in subject lines clearly boosted email open rates.

It might be jarring, but that’s precisely why it works. The aggressive email subject line is an example of a “pressure” tactic, defined as using demands, threats, frequent checking, or charged language to get someone to do what you want—which remote workers said they found effective.

Trying this with a stranger or overusing it is likely to irritate people. It can also damage your credibility with colleagues and superiors. In short: Don’t say something is urgent unless it truly is.

Still, when push comes to shove, it works.