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Communicating with Millennials: Using Brevity

FBI press release Screen Shot 2016-12-17 at 13.56.07

The shorthand notation TL;DR literally means “too long; didn’t read.”[1] It has existed mainly in the world of online bulletin boards and other text-based digital communications. It originally was a harsh critique of text that was too long and unimportant to justify the time needed to read it. The purpose since has morphed into introducing a simple summary of a longer passage. Its use is growing slowly and breaking through to more mainstream uses, particularly among millennials. I have spotted it recently in e-mails, news articles, opinion pieces, and product reviews.

The abbreviation may be new, but the idea is not. In a recent FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Leadership Spotlight, an FBI writing instructor recommended always putting the bottom line up front (BLUF), a useful technique.[2] “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” is a quote conveying a message so popular that people have attributed it to many different authors in various languages dating back hundreds of years.[3]

Around 1600 in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Queen Gertrude—Hamlet’s mother—seeks to understand what is causing her son’s woes. Lord Polonius, full of information, conveys this same feeling when he tells her, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad….”[4] If Lord Polonius communicated this today, he would have e-mailed, “TL;DR: Hamlet is crazy!” before launching into a longer explanation.

Why does this matter? You need to know your audience and tailor your communications to them. Millennial police personnel have told me that when supervisors write long e-mails, an officer will forward it to the others with a TL;DR summary at the top. Is it worth your time writing countless persuasive paragraphs if your intended audience is going to stop reading after “TL;DR: Keep your cars clean, or you will be punished”?

I am not suggesting that you give in completely and stop providing pertinent background information in your written communications. There still is a place for finely crafted and grammatically sound prose of more than 140 characters. My suggestion is that you consider adding TL;DR summaries to your own communications when appropriate. That way, those who want the full explanation can keep reading, and those who will not take the time still will get the basic information. If a message is critical and you need to express meaning and emotion, consider sending a 2- to 3-minute video recording. Your young colleagues will watch it, and they will prefer it.

Supervisory Special Agent Cory McGookin, an instructor with the Executive Programs Instructional Unit, FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at[email protected].

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