Hari Patience-Davies explains how a TLDR summary is good email etiquette.

I recently read Erica Dhawan’s Digital Body Language – a great book, that I thoroughly recommend by the way.

In the Communicate Carefully chapter of her book, Dhawan sets out 9 rules for good emails. These include things like:

  • Write a clear subject line.
  • Use bullet points and subheadings to make your message easy to read.
  • Show instead of tell by attaching screenshots.

Along with a lot of other good advice.

But the rule that caught my eye was:

“Create clear acronyms (NNTR = No Need To Respond; WINFY = What I Need From You.)”

Now I’m not a huge fan of acronyms – they often slip too close to jargon or in-group language and can alienate people who don’t already know what they mean – but this made a lot of sense to me.

We all get far too many emails and it can be really hard to know which are the ones that require action, which are on deadline, which are just for information. To figure out what we need to do with an email we need to read it – but often we don’t have time to read an email carefully, so we skim it.

This means information can be missed. Information about deadlines, actions needed, or situations worsening.

We can make the lives of our email recipients easier if we take the time to write a quick TLDR – An internet expression that means Too Long, Didn’t Read – summary right at the top of the email.

So instead of our boss receiving something like:

Dear Anna,

I hope your meeting with the stakeholders went well. We’ve run into a snag on the Rocket project and need your guidance on what we should do. What’s happened is…

We could instead write:

TLDR: Need your help with Rocket problem

Dear Anna

I hope your meeting with the stakeholders went well…

In the first example, the information is there, but it’s buried behind a pleasantry. We don’t want to seem rude when our boss is reading her emails, but is best wishes for a past meeting really the first (and therefore seemingly most important) thing we want her to see?

In the second example we can still keep the pleasantry, but we add a TLDR right at the top, above the greeting, so it’s the first thing they see.

Putting your request first like this should mean that the first 50 or so characters (which includes everything in the TLDR statement) are also visible in an email preview view.

If your boss isn’t familiar with internet parlance you may have to explain what TLDR means the first time you do this. Or you could use WINFY, as Dhawan suggests. As both are acronyms its definitely worth making sure your boss (and other team members) understand them before you start sending out emails full of them – the aim here is to remove confusion, not create it!

But once everyone is on the same page, taking the time to outline what you want or need the email to result in, quickly, simply and right at the top of the message, is a great way to improve the effectiveness of your emails.


Image credit: Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

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