In Facebook’s information-dense work environment, there’s a lot competing for our colleagues’ attention. To help insights land, researchers write a short summary or TL;DR for each research report. A great TL;DR establishes the report’s key points in a way that stakeholders can repeat by memory. A bad TL;DR is one that is either TL (too long) or that people DR (didn’t read or don’t remember).
I like to think of the TL;DR as the bones of the research report — the fundamental structure. Focusing on it from the outset can help you create a sturdier, more persuasive report. And like a fossil skeleton, a TL;DR often outlasts the rest of the report.
Here are some of my secrets for writing an effective TL;DR:
1. Write the TL;DR first
The most persuasive TL;DRs can stand on their own, rather than just pointing readers to the full report. The best way to accomplish this is to make the TL;DR the first thing you write. Use it to guide your report’s structure. And then, after you’ve written the report, go back and refine the TL;DR. If you’re struggling to write a good TL;DR, it may be that you don’t yet know what you’re trying to argue. That’s OK. Write the TL;DR when you know.
2. Always include a headline
Always. This headline is your high-level takeaway from the research. It could be a key learning, like “People have trouble organizing their daily schedules,” or an assessment of product usability, like “Poor feature discoverability caused most usability issues.” This headline is the main punchline of your research.
3. Include 3–4 supporting arguments and a recommendation
When it comes to short-term working memory, 4 is the magic number. Don’t include more than 4 supporting arguments in your TL;DR. These can either bolster your main headline or establish subordinate findings or ideas. Include a recommendation or provocation at the end of your TL;DR — something to drive the audience to your desired next step.
4. Keep it short and memorable
Short means few words (ideally under 150 words, or what comfortably fits on a slide in 40 pt. font). Edit out passive voice; cut out fluff statements. You likely don’t need to go into methodology details either. Most product people reading your research care more about the insights than your method choice. Write memorable and repeatable statements.
5. Make it believable
A TL;DR should feel like a miniature version of your report, not an add-on. It should be believable based on existing knowledge, the logic of the argument, or your reputation as a researcher. If you’re making a novel or nonintuitive claim, include explanations. If you find it difficult to convincingly explain your claims in a TL;DR, you might be making too much of a leap in a single report. In that case, you might need to stage your argument over a couple reports.
An example: a TL;DR for The Ugly Duckling
Community positively affects self-esteem in swans.
- Mistaken identity has long-lasting consequences. The misidentified “duckling” struggled to find a community on the pond.
- Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ducks thought the cygnet was unattractive because it looked different.
- Context affects self-perception. The cygnet felt beautiful after it found a community of swans.
How might we help swans find their communities more efficiently?
Tools for writing a great TL;DR
- KISS (Keep it Sweet and Simple). A bare-bones TL;DR is often the clearest. If you’re getting profound or long-winded, you risk losing your audience.
- Use templates. If you find a formula that works for you, stick with it. My favorite template is a one-sentence headline, three or four supporting arguments or findings, and a one-sentence recommendation or provocation.
- Have someone else read it. A fresh set of eyes can often spot confusing or unnecessary passages. Having an outsider read it for basic understanding can reveal parts that are too complex or nuanced for a TL;DR.