tl;dr, and other ways of getting to the point

tl;dr of this post: Start with a short version to avoid losing your audience. Try some of the writing structures I find helpful. Share yours.

I was trying to solve a technical challenge this week, and one website I found kept using the acronym tl;dr at the beginning of every page. I had to look it up.

Apparently it stands for “Too long; didn’t read” and can mean one of two things:

  1. The posting above is way too lengthy to keep my interest’, or
  2. ‘here is a summary of the lengthy text that follows’ (It was this meaning)

What? Why? How?

Later that day, my teenage son asked me to read a complicated email he was sending to the other sound engineers in his team. “Start with a TL;DR” I said (proud of myself for knowing some hip internet jargon), “then do a Why, What, How.” He knew exactly what I meant and the resulting email was much better. And I was particularly pleased that he didn’t scorn my trendy dad-jargon – apparently this acronym isn’t out of date yet, even though it originated in 2003!

I particularly like “Why. What. How.” as a reminder to myself, because when reading or listening to anyone else that’s the order of the questions I want to ask them. But most people, myself included, are so familiar with our own subject that we jump right into the “how”, missing out the vital context. Like my son did in his first draft. So ask yourself:

  • Why on earth should I read this, what relevance has it, what benefit is this leading to?
  • What exactly is the proposal?
  • How does this get practical? What are the steps we have to take?

The lead paragraph

It’s much the same as modern journalistic style: the lead, i.e. the first paragraph, is a brief sharp statement of the story’s essential facts, in 25 words covering the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where and why. Journalists use an inverted pyramid structure – the most interesting things are near the beginning, and then comes the supporting information in order of diminishing importance. Once you notice it, you’ll see it in every news article you read.

I try to do that in my blog posts. If there is anything like a set of instructions, it goes last, and I fully expect most people not to read that far. So, if I want to describe interesting ways to use the technique, it has to come before the detail. And the most interesting bit (or the cat picture) has to come first, or no one will read on.

Barbara Minto’s pyramid principle: SCQA

Another structure that I often use is taken from Barbara Minto’s pyramid principle: Situation, Complication, Question and Answer (SCQA). I remember learning it when I was writing a case study to be used with our Global Services customers, and the editor of the brochure was very patient in coaxing me away from my systematic, technical descriptions to more of an engaging story. If you haven’t come across it, here’s a good summary. The “Complication” is the twist in the story that makes it engaging to read.


Another one that has stuck with me is an acronym we were taught on a “Bidding to win” course many years ago. “Outcomes. Audience. Theme.” are the first three letters, the rest is lost to my memory and unavailable even to Google. However the first two words are what really stuck: what is the outcome you want to see in the lives of the audience. I ask myself that all the time. Even for this blog (Answer: in this case, I want some of you to share your own little aides-memoire that you use when writing stuff at work. So I’ve just added that to the TL;DR at the beginning.)

This applies almost everywhere

This stuff applies to almost everything that we do at work: emails, delivering effective presentations, reports, social media, webpages. I’m not really suggesting you use the acronym tl;dr everywhere, just to think that way or swap to one of the other helpful frameworks when it is more appropriate.

What’s your secret?

So I’m intrigued to hear your tips. Of all the things you’ve heard about writing and presenting well, what has stuck with you? Please share them in the comments below.


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