WTF is TL;DR

I get it! Communication needs to be short and to the point. Documenting goals and plans is no longer necessary in this fast paced world we live in. I have heard this many times.

Though there is some merit in being to the point, I can’t help but see a correlation between the fact that people don’t read and the chaos that results from TL;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read — for those of you unfamiliar with it). It is my own opinion that TL;DR is the enemy of intelligent decision making and, as far as I am concerned, should be banished from our vocabulary forever.

It is TL;DR that leads to situations that are constantly mischaracterised. The commander in chief of the United States is perhaps the lord of the technique of mischaracterisation, applying it liberally to almost every fact he quotes or, the history he revises on fly to suit a narrative. This is not just inconvenient or amusing for the listener, it’s downright destructive and does nothing but sow chaos and confusion.

It’s not just in the political arena, similar things happen in companies or organisations. I once consulted for a large company whose founders, and subsequently their subordinates, insisted that all communication must be simple and short and that there was no need for explanation beyond the facts. “Just stick to the facts” they would say. In effect, the circumstances of every fact, or the why of every fact, was removed from each and every message. What no one wanted to acknowledge was that the net effect was absolute chaos. People knew what, but they had no idea why or how. The same disregard for circumstance was reflected in the companies lack of interest in plans — be they business plans or reports. It was considered a complete waste of time planning something that was likely going to change the moment it was to be implemented. So best just to do.

A old quote by a Prussian commander was often used as the reason why they were completely pointless exercises. However, this I found was again a complete mischaracterisation of the substance of the quote. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is not is itself a criticism of the planning process but an endorsement of the idea of flexibility. To be flexible allows any plan to encounter the unknown confidently, knowing that the new decisions and ideas to proceed have been allowed for.

The other justification I often heard was that famous quote from Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try”. Which if mischaracterised, provides the universal license for winging it and hoping for the best. Personally I have always believed that such a quote was directed to the process of practice, iteration and improvement rather than just turning up unprepared.

At the core of it, TL;DR is not necessarily a rejection of detail. People still need and want good information. What seems to be at issue here is that the art of writing is not widely encouraged and therefore the quality of writing tends to be very poor.

I wish I could say that my personal experience with the process of writing was an easy one, but when I was a child I had severe dyslexia and writing wasn’t just a chore — it was downright impossible. Only after years and years of punching away at a keyboard and building confidence in my written words am I now comfortable with the construction of sentences, paragraphs and information in a way that hopefully clarifies rather than confuses. It’s by no means perfect, and still very freestyle — but the more you practice the better you get.

So if TL;DR is about quality not quantity then we all should be encouraging clear, concise and useful correspondence in the workplace. Here are a few points that could be worthwhile thinking about the next time you request input from your team.

1. Don’t discourage detail, instead encourage quality

Don’t preface your request for information with an insistence on NO WALL OF TEXT. Instead, insist on detailed information in an organised, high-quality communication. Help your team understand the importance of quality communication and encourage exchange of ideas when it comes to communication structure and identifying the core subjects. Also lead from the front. Communicate to your team the way you expect to be communicated to. If you don’t communicate with your team, don’t expect them to communicate with you.

2. Frequency Is the enemy of surprise

The best way not to be surprised is to insist of communication frequency. An email every day from your subordinates may just save you a nasty surprise. Of course, it’s important to trust your team but, as a leader and coach in chief, you need to guide them — and unless you know what they’re working on and how they are progressing — you won’t know what advice to dispense. Someone once told me that “silence is deadly”. It was a sound piece of advice.

3. Understand the why and circumstance

The facts can be interpreted a million ways and twisted to fit whatever outcome you are seeking. So be sure to insist on a clear explanation of the why and the circumstances that led to the fact. That way you will understand how you got to where you are at. I always insist that “a good result is not as important as being able to explain how you achieved the result”.

4. Writing a report isn’t lost productivity

Writing reports may seem an eighties pursuit and in some circles considered unproductive — but I am a big fan of reports. Reports allow you to crystallise your thoughts and efforts and provide an opportunity to reflect on the decisions and resulting outcomes — either in achieving or missing your weekly, monthly or quarterly goals. That reflection often triggers the inspiration for what comes next.

5. READ every email and RESPOND

I send a lot of emails and I have to say the response rates are very poor. Email may not be the most fashionable way of communicating and too many leaders out there are undermining the medium by not responding. If this is you, your subordinates are probably following suit. If email goes the way of phone calls (becoming almost non-existent) and the entire world communicates in small acronym text bubbles — this outcome is not likely to be good. Don’t be part of civilisations downfall and insist your team answer every email.

6. Ban GHOSTING and TL;DR from your team’s vocabulary and actions

Finally BAN the above two phrases. These two things are the true enemy of good communication and possibly civilisation as we know it.

I am impressed that you reached the end of this article. It indicates that you are a detailed oriented curious leader and I hope you will join me to promote clear, high quality communication.