Everyone knows at least one skimmer. Someone who doesn’t really read their email that closely, the person who reads enough to “get the point” but might miss a lot of the details.
The life of a skimmer is trecherous. They go to meetings and get asked a question “about that email that was sent yesterday” and have absolutely no idea how to answer. They never know what time the party is going to start, or who was invited, or what day it is going to be held.
Skimming causes problems. But for whatever reason, skimmers can’t stop. They might just think it’s ridiculous that people send long email messages. They might be “all about efficiency” or “impatient” or “don’t care.” The list of reasons is long.
I know some skimmers, and they are going to think this blog is about them. But it’s not. It’s about what happened to me when I became a skimmer and what I learned from the experience.
I am NOT the skimming type. I am detail-oriented, I read every word. I’m the person who explains what’s going on to the skimmers during the meetings. But with starting all these businesses, I have a lot of details going on at once. And a couple of weeks back, I forgot that my book club was meeting in a week and I still hadn’t bought a book.
My book club is a little non-traditional - it’s a history book club, we pick a different historical topic every time we meet, everyone reads a different book, and then we attempt to explain to each other what we read to try to surround the topic and get a better understanding of history. This is not because we are history buffs, but because – to put it kindly – our historical knowledge is somewhat lacking. In past book clubs, we have read about apartheid in South Africa, the time of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong, and the Crusades. This book club topic was Cuba and Castro, which turned out to be very timely.
So I headed over to Amazon.com to search for a book on Cuba. I have learned my lesson in previous book clubs to not get a book that’s too long, or one that’s too intellectual – I wouldn’t be able to get through either in a week. I also know that the crowds are usually right, so I always go for a bestseller.
So I searched on “Cuba.” The first book was a travel guide, I knew to skip that. Number 2 was a book called I Was Cuba: Treasures from the Ramiro Fernandez Collection, and it was under $20, had a 4.5 star rating with 12 reviewers. I clicked to the page to find out more. The book description said this, the full text is below. But to show you what I saw, I will BOLD the parts that I read (when skimming):
“While most think of Cuba as a mythical island of rum, rumba, and revolution, period photographs reveal a more complex place. I Was Cuba is an original look at Cuban history as seen through the Ramiro Fernandez Collection arguably the world’s leading archive of Cuban photos and ephemera. I Was Cuba showcases rare, vernacular images from the nineteenth century through the revolutionary period, exploring the everyday and the eccentric. With texts from famed Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls), this captivating volume is an intimate view into a bygone era of glamour, political upheaval, and astounding visual culture.”
I bought the book. When it came, I found that this was not a book that I could read for book club – because there were no words. The “texts” were few and far between, and were simply short quotes. This book was a collection of (random, interesting, but not even that historical) photographs.
I bought a picture book for my book club.
And I was caught – a skimmer!
This experience helped me realize that being a skimmer is painful. But that sometimes everyone is going to skim. However, since I don’t want skimmers to skim when they are reading something that I wrote, especially an email, I need to work to combat skimming every way that I can.
So here are the five things that that you can make sure that your email messages get read by skimmers:
1) Put the point of the message in the subject line. Don’t waste the subject line with “hey” or “hello.” Put the subject of your message right in the subject line.
2) Make your point in the first sentence. Don’t take a long time to get to the point or explain background – you can do that later. Make the point in the first sentence of the first paragraph of the message.
3) Elaborate in the rest of the email – but keep your main point in the first sentence of each paragraph. Sometimes skimmers will “read” the whole email by reading the first sentence of each paragraph – so keep your main point up top.
4) If there is something that someone must read and it’s not at the top of the message, use the person’s name, in bold. And maybe underline it. This might offend a non-skimmer just a bit, but the skimmer is sure to notice their name bolded. Skimmers look for bold and bullets – they are a skimmer’s lifeline – so use them for important points in your email message. Because when she’s skimming a long email, Melissa I need you to do this, will really stand out.
5) Put a call-to-action before your signature. At the very end of the message, if there is some action that needs to be taken based on the message, remind the person at the end. “Please call me by the end of the day tomorrow.” or “I need your list of suggestions by noon.” That way the skimmer will know that they need to do something with the email, and your chances of getting a response will go way up.
And don’t follow my example and put a long personal story before the five main points in your message - the skimmers will never get that far.