How to do a great Summary

This email is the first in a 2022 series on how to impress bosses with great Summaries (notice I call them Summaries, not Executive Summaries... why 'Executive'?!?).  And in today's email, you've some brief research to do, and a quick puzzle to ponder.

Let's start... imagine we’re writing a report to go to bosses tomorrow - and in two days, we’ll talk through it briefly at the start of a meeting with those bosses. But we’re struggling.... what to write in the Summary? How to kickstart the meeting? Are we getting to the heart of it all? We agonise.

Before we see what to do, I’ve a request for you – it's the research: grab, say, a regular monthly report for a business unit (HR? IT? Etc). Assume it has a one- or two-page Summary (it should), and assume the Summary has several brief sections/bits to it (usually it does). In what order are these brief sections? The same order as the rest of the report? Or the order in which work has been done? Or order of project or product or business unit? Etc. Got the answer? Good. Hold it in your head, we return to this later.

And now for the small puzzle: what order should it be in? Ponder your answer, then - again - hold that thought for later.

Back to our agonies: what to write in the Summary? As I’ve said in previous emails - hence I'll keep this brief - we should role-play a 30-second summary of our report. That is, the day before we circulate our report, we force ourselves to give a 30-second verbal summary of it to a colleague.  

(For a reminder, here’s a six-page Chapter on it from my book – how to role-play, how long it takes (5-10 minutes, usually), questions to ask when doing it, with whom to role-play, why a 5-second summary is rarely enough, why 60 or 90 seconds is fine, the benefits of it, etc.)

I will repeat one benefit. The big one. We end up creating 30 seconds of pure gold which we then put at the start of our report, plus we kickstart the meeting with it too. And as my Chapter explains, readers and bosses love it – and love you - because you save them time and make their lives easier. You look professional and focussed.

But there's more (cue new material): when we role-play, there’s two other great benefits that I’ve not previously mentioned in emails:

We realise there’s lots of stuff in our report that shouldn’t be there: many of us write what we know, not what readers need to know.  

We realise there’s lots of stuff not in our report that should be there: ask someone to cast an eye over our report before we send it out, and most people will edit what’s there. It’s a rare editor that thinks about what isn’t. But when we role-play, we put the report to one side and just chat - and stuff emerges in conversation. Our colleague asks: “What about GDPR?”. And: “What about NAFTA(!)?” “Good questions”, we realise.

Also, here’s two new thoughts on what to role-play:

Do it not just for the report, but for individual sections too. If you've a four-page section, verbally summarise it to a colleague. You really get to its heart.

Do it even for a single page. Recently I saw a one-page Summary of an 8-page report. The one page had 20 bullets, and within those bullets there were 47 numbers. Even though the bullets were grouped (I’ll tell you how in a tick), readers struggled to join the dots. The numbers moved almost randomly from good news, to bad, to so-so, to good, to good but worsening, etc. On its own, each number made sense. Collectively, they made no sense. It was impossible to see the wood for the trees. Readers want to know if they should worry or sleep soundly, but to decide which, they must read all 20 bullets and 47 numbers, then join the dots (“Hmmm… it's going OK - I think”). Tough.

And the reason readers struggled? The Summary's order - its bullets were grouped in the same order as the rest of the report. Which seems logical, it happens a lot (think back to the Summary you hunted out... was it in the order of the rest of the report?).

No. Put the Summary in order of reader interest. Which bits should readers worry about? Be reassured about? Role-playing a 30-second summary forces you to think along those lines. Your colleague will say: “Don’t describe 47 numbers! Tell me what I need to know”.

Three final points:

Help readers navigate: because the Summary is in a different order to the rest of the report, help readers know where to find out more, e.g. your Summary's second paragraph might say: “Errors up 10% (section 7.5): this is due to blah; we’re doing blah”. 

Role-play before circulating your report. Sounds obvious, yet I often hear people say: “After I circulate my report – but before we meet up to discuss it – I sit down and work out the key points to highlight at the meeting”. In other words: “I circulate my report without first working out its key points”. No wonder there's a meeting to discuss it – people couldn’t make head nor tail of it. 

I’m not against showing 47 numbers in a Summary: maybe they're all key. But strive to highlight if, say, three are Really Key. But how? We can't remove the other 44 - yes, three are Really Key, but each of the other 44 will be of interest to someone that reads it. We must show all 47. Also, assume that in next month's report, we've four Really Key ones – and they’re different to this month’s three.

So... what to do? I tell you next month, plus address concerns with all this. Stay tuned. 


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