Less is more … difficult – writing summaries

Leadership

Writing is hard and writing a summary is no exception. If you are working on proposals, general research or strategies, at some point you have to summarize your idea. As Pascal once said "I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter." A summary takes time to get right.

The investment does pay off as it makes your work easier to digest, improves structure and highlights your very best insights. It's not uncommon that only the summary gets read. That's actually a good thing. But it raises the stakes to get the summary right and you still need to put in the work – your summary will only be as good as the underlying work. But there are a few tips and tricks that helped me in the past.

The basics

What is an executive summary

The summary is where good strategy projects start and end. It synthesizes the results including the recommendation or the implications of the work. Taken from the Wikipedia

An executive summary [...] summarizes a longer report [...] in such a way that readers can rapidly become acquainted with a large body of material without having to read it all. [...] It is intended as an aid to decision-making and has been described as the most important part of a business plan.

Wikipedia - Executive Summary

Three functions of a summary

The summary can serve you in three ways. Most obviously, it summarizes your work into its most concise and compelling way. But there are two more applications:

It can help you manage a project. Writing a hypothesis at the start of a project in the form of a summary helps you identify the main components that you need to understand to make a recommendation. Those can then become workstreams. Keeping your summary updated throughout a project helps you maintain focus and course correct where necessary. By the way, Amazon's method of starting projects with the press release is this theory in action.

Last, but not least, the summary is a rough outline for the narrative of the rest of your work. As such it provides you with an initial structure and the underlying logic. Having the summary first, will save you a lot of time later when you need to get the narrative right.

When to use one

So when is the best time to write the summary? Always! Start with the summary even if you don't know all the details. This is your hypothesis or "one day answer", i.e. what your instinct tells you after the first day of research. It will also tell you what you need to find out. Maintain your summary throughout the project and adapt it to new insights. Fine tune the summary at the end of your project to get it right. Over the course of this process the summary will change a lot as you learn, but it will make sure that you stay on course.

As with everything, it takes practice and is uncomfortable at the start. And reading your first draft at the end of a project always is a mix of pride, because you got a few things right from the start, and utter cringe, because of how naïve you were. That is OK and part of the learning process.

Below are a few concepts that helped me in the past.

Structure, structure, structure

Rocks and pebbles

A lack of structure only confuses your reader. So, how to create a good one? A visualization might help. Imagine a roaring river and your job is to get your reader from one side to the other without getting their feet wet. To do this, you have to identify the rocks in the river that you can step on. Each is supported by a number of pebbles that give it stability. The rocks are your main points. The pebbles are supporting facts. Good summaries work with four to six rocks, each supported by three to five pebbles. Those numbers work well in my experience. You might need less, rarely more.

Situation, complication, so what

The tricky bit is now to know what kind of rocks you need. As any good story has an introduction, a middle part and an end, a good summary includes a description of the situation, the complication and a recommendation. The situation is a matter-of-fact description of the status quo. It should be uncontentious and give the reader sufficient context. The complication illustrates why we are looking into a situation. It tells the reader what the problem is. Last, but not least there should be conclusion or recommendation as in "What should we do about it?".

Break your writer's block with Hulk speak

Getting your structure right is hard. Often we get side tracked by finding the right words or shortening long sentences while we still haven't cracked the overall structure. What helped me in the past is to revert to Hulk Speak:

WRITING IS HARD
YOU THINK TOO MUCH!
WE HAVE A SOLUTION
THE HULK SUMMARY!
CHANNEL INNER HULK VOICE!
BULLET LIST!
FEW WORDS
SAY IT. EFFECTIVE!
NOW, SMASH CAR!

Smash your writer’s block with The Hulk Summary

Try it out and force yourself to less than five words per statement. It's amazing how much it drives clarity. It forces you to use simple words and choose them carefully – you don't get that many.

Be brief

Don’t be comprehensive

It is tempting to give into the urge to show your sweat and write down all the good insights that you found out over the course of your research. Don’t. Just because you did a lot of research, doesn’t mean that your reader has to pay for it. Rather select the few relevant things that your reader should know. What is it that really matters. Very often that requires a healthy distance to your text. A good night of sleep and some fresh eyes in the morning can help cutting some of the unnecessary bits from your summary. And sometimes it is necessary to start new, ignoring your existing work and just tell the story again. Yes, you can reuse some of the old bits, but first we need to write down your cornerstones.

Kill your darlings

Use as little words as possible and as many as necessary. Over the course of a project your summary will breathe. It will expand as you learn more and it will contract as you make hard decisions and kill your darlings.

This is one of the hardest parts. As you go through the motions of your project and update your summary on a regular basis, it will inevitably grow in length. At some point you have to be brave and cut. It will hurt, you won't like it, but it is necessary. Don't make your reader pay for all the good research you have done. Make the hard decisions about which pieces are critical and which are optional. Delete the optional ones. Set yourself arbitrary word count goals and cut, cut, cut. If you don't want to do it, have somebody else read over the summary and cut the things they don't think are necessary. In most cases you will disagree, but there is a good chance your editor is right.

I recommend listening to them, follow their advice and implement their feedback even if you don't like it. Then let it sit for a day or two and re-read the new version. Often you will realize that the new summary actually works, is more compact and just needs to be slightly tweaked.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

The Author

Raging introvert, estimated to be 120% German. Passionate about photography. If Sheldon knocked on my door three times, I'd let him in.