How to give the right amount of context

Don’t assume your recipient knows what you need

Wes Kao
5 min readDec 6, 2019
Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

Giving the right amount of context is an art and science.

Too much?

Your recipient can’t tell what’s important and what they should do next.

Too little?

Your recipient won’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

Sometimes folks think they are being helpful when they just send “a quick email.” But without context or a suggested next step, it’s pretty much useless.

This begs the question: How do you give the right amount of context?

1. Remind them where you left off.

Task switching takes a tremendous amount of energy. Your recipient is probably looking at your note in between doing a dozen other tasks. So help them out by reminding them where you left off.

If you’re following up to show you’ve incorporated your boss’ edits, remind them specifically what they didn’t like and what you changed. Then share the action you’ll take next.

You can top it off by saying, “Let me know if you have any other feedback. We’ll continue to proceed unless we hear otherwise.”

This makes it super easy for your recipient to quickly say, “Looks great, thanks.”

2. Be specific and explicit about what you need.

I had a team member say this in Slack: “The new ad is updated in our Google Doc. It’s published in Facebook as well, but not running.”

What is wrong with this statement?

When I read this, I don’t know if:

(a) Is the Facebook ad not running because something is broken, we got flagged, or something else terrible? Should we be worried? And if yes, what are you going to do about it?

(b) You updated the Google Doc… Now what? Is it an FYI or are you waiting on something from me?

Be specific about what you need and what the next step is. Don’t assume your recipient knows what you need from them.

3. Mention if it’s an FYI.

It wastes an enormous amount of everyone’s time to ping anything without an action step. It’s lazy thinking to the max. The fact that your recipient has to ask what you need from them slows everyone down.

You can go faster by mentioning if something is an FYI. Don’t make people guess what they should do with the info you’re sending.

4. Adopt an action-oriented posture and suggest the next step.

“I didn’t do it because I don’t have access to the right permissions in Google Analytics.”

Okay, you don’t have access… So were you going wait until someone happened to ask you about this? If you don’t have access, it’s your responsibility to ask for it.

You’re responsible for getting something done, so speak up if you need something. Otherwise, we’ll assume you have what you need.

The most valuable team members are people who anticipate what you need before you even know you need it.

For example, at one of my clients, there’s a team member named Kenny. If you ask Kenny anything, he’ll give you the answer-then give you the thing you didn’t even know you needed, but actually needed.

He’s built personal credibility as a linchpin because he sees the bigger picture of what his recipient is asking for, and thinks several steps ahead.

5. Be explicit about what level of detail you need from your team.

“I always ask the same questions when my team presents something to me. I wish they would ask themselves these questions first!”

You might think it’s obvious what questions you always ask, and therefore your team should anticipate and bring this info to you.

But we can’t read minds, and what’s obvious to you might not be obvious to others.

That’s why it’s useful to explicitly tell your team what type of context you need. Stop hoping people will pick up on your hints!

Here’s a script of what I’ve said to my team. Feel free to borrow and make it your own.

“Awesome. Can you send a screenshot or the link you want me to look at, and let me know what you need from me?

I want to make sure I’m not the roadblock and you’re never waiting on me for more than a day or so. I realized you might want to make sure you’re not bugging me, so it could be good to calibrate on our expectations.

First, you’ll never bother me by following up. We’ll consider the ball always in your court, so keep following up until you get what you need. I’ll always appreciate you for following up.

Second, going forward if you need approval, please make it super easy to review and approve instantly.

For example, that might mean

(a) including a link to the doc

(b) including a screenshot

(c) explaining context on where we left off

(d) articulating specifically what you need approved

Articulating these things is helpful because I can see your message and take action. There are a lot of moving parts. Most likely when I see your note, I’m context switching from something else. Your context will make it much easier for me to approve, so you can continue doing great work.

Let me know if this sounds good and if you’re on board. Thanks in advance!”

6. Consider these variables to give more or fewer details.

  • How busy is your recipient? (How much is the topic is 100% of their focus versus only a tiny slice of their day? If your boss has a million things going on, then you may want to give them enough context in one place so they can quickly understand what’s going on.)
  • How reversible is this decision?
  • What’s the magnitude and longevity of the impact if things go wrong? (Do we lose a few hundred bucks, or are we signing a 5-year legally binding contract?)
  • What are questions your boss tends to ask? Answer those questions in advance when you give context.
  • How much detail does your boss usually want?

If your recipient is super busy, doesn’t usually want a ton of details, and the decision is fairly reversible… Less context is probably okay.

If the decision involves spending money or is customer-facing, err on the side of giving a bit more context. Customer or public-facing material affects your brand, and could lead to much bigger snafus, so it’s a higher stakes decision.

7. Mention your criteria and assumptions.

Most bosses want to know that you did your due diligence and are thinking ahead. For example, let’s say you need to recommend a new platform or tool.

Do the following:

  • State the explicit criteria you used -> so your boss can add/remove criteria and see what assumptions you made. This lets you have a more productive conversation.
  • Share how many options you looked at and briefly list them -> so your boss knows you didn’t just pick the first search result on Google.
  • Mention potential risks and trade-offs -> so your boss knows you are aware of what could potentially go awry — and why it won’t be so bad.

Basically, these things take the mental load off your recipient. Otherwise it’s not that helpful to just send a list. Your recipient still had to do the hard part of digging through everything and deciding what to do.

Which of these do you already do and which do you want to add to your toolbox?



Wes Kao

Marketing | Product | Strategy | Prev: altMBA, Seth Godin HQ, Flite (acq by Snapchat), Gap Inc. @wes_kao |