A tough test - just how good is your Summary?

Today's email looks at ideas for improving report-summaries. You see hugely popular ideas that mostly fail, and you see a new idea that really works.

First the ideas that fail - below are five popular ways to improve summaries, but which, on their own, are mostly doomed. Let’s review them, just so we can dismiss them.

'Style' templates, e.g. front sheets, font requirements, etc: pretty covers and nice fonts don’t make up for bad reports.

'Content' templates, e.g. Section (1) Intro; Section (2) Analysis; etc: often, these don't prevent bad reports, they create them. This email explains why.

WiT ('Words-in-Tables', my signature dish): on its own, WiT won’t make a bad report good. And if it's bad WiT, it makes a bad report worse.

Limiting writers to one or two pages: granted, bosses no longer receive long, bad reports. They receive short, bad ones. If someone can’t write a good nine-pager, they probably can't write a good two-pager. Read my previous email for more.

Better writing. Really..?! Surely better writing results in good summaries, no? Not necessarily. I’ve seen well-written reports that are easy to grasp, but which are still bad. Their authors write well... but about the wrong stuff. They just don't get to the point.

We must distil. Summarise. But how? As I say on my Courses, the best way to improve reports is – counterintuitively – to talk. I tell people that, before they circulate their report, they should "role-play a 30-second summary" of it. I won’t go into details here – here’s the six-page Chapter from my book on this topic, it’s a free pdf on my website.

However, as a one-paragraph overview of the Chapter, try this: we should verbally give a 30-second summary of our report to a colleague. Of course, do this before you circulate the report, and do it with someone who will bug you with questions for 10 minutes (and whom you trust). Result: you end up with a summary that really gets to the point. That answers obvious questions. That makes readers feel something. Plus we end up writing as we speak, i.e. simply and clearly.  

So...if we should write as we speak, why not speak what we write? That is, to see if our summary is as it should be, try reading it out loud. Word-for-word. Do this, and you clearly see if it gets to the point quickly (in which case it's probably a good summary). Or if it rambles or bores (in which case it's probably a bad summary). 

It's a tough litmus-paper test for our summaries, but that's because it's so revealing.

So far, so interesting. Time for a radical idea, one that takes this litmus-paper thinking a stage further: next time you're in a meeting to discuss someone's report that you all received two days previously - and as often happens, the Chair asks the author to give everyone a 30 or 60-second overview of the report - get its author to read their summary out loud.

Word-for-word. For just 30 or 60 seconds.

Or maybe even get the person next to the author to read it out. 

First time this happens in your firm, I suspect it’ll be a bit uncomfortable. This shock-tactic really exposes just how bad stuff is (try it with reports you’ve written or that you receive).

But it might be what’s needed to raise the bar. To force people to up their game.

And I know it raises the bar. Recently I’ve written three reports and did this read-out-loud trick, and it really forced me to up my game.

Two points on this idea:

If the summary has WiT, maybe just read out the left bits. Remember: the left side of WiT are the key bits, and the right side is where readers go if they want more.

Allow an update or two to emerge: meetings take place a week or so after a report has been circulated, so sometimes its presenter has an update on something that’s since happened. That’s fine. But the report should surely still mostly be relevant, so read out its summary. Word for word.

If you try it out in your firm, let me know how it goes.

Time for fun stuff: when thinking about this read-out-loud idea, I thought of my elder brother. You see, he has an annoying habit: every time he sees anything I've written, he proceeds to read it out loud. In an exaggeratedly boring voice.

And then says: "BORING!". He thinks he's being funny.

I'm not sure I agree.

But it got me thinking about how someone might read another person's summary in a meeting. Maybe in the style of Father Purcell from the TV sitcom Father Ted? Or perhaps like the Boring Prophet from the movie Life of Brian? Enjoy. 

Til next month. 


Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

To receive these emails at a different address, email me with details.

Want my GDPR policy? Click here. It's a bit irreverent, plus has two jokes.

Want to see previous emails? Click here for loads.

Been forwarded this email? Want to get future updates directly? Click here

Clarity and Impact Ltd