Crafting an Effective Summary

Friday, October 21, 2016

Imagine a bookstore filled with books that have blank covers. The only way to know what the book is about it is to start plowing through the first chapter. Absurd. You’re likely thinking that no one would have the patience. Yet, managers frequently write emails that fail to tell the reader the purpose of the message until the third paragraph.

The ability to encapsulate key points in the opening few sentences of a message is an essential skill for managers who write to other executives. Managers often are good at sharing everything they know about an issue and explaining why something is problematic. But they often stumble over crafting a compelling, action-oriented message that engages readers quickly. 

Benefits of Summarizing

The way to pull readers in and keep them on the page is to encapsulate the essential information in the opening paragraph. This tactic has several benefits:

  • It focuses attention by telling the reader the essential facts and context she needs. 
  • By previewing what is coming in the rest of the message, the summary increases speed of processing in the rest of the message. 
  • It enables the reader’s brain to focus more easily on details in the body of the message.

In a short message, the summary might simply be a statement of the main point in the first sentence. But in a six- or seven-paragraph message, a summary requires encapsulating the essentials in the first paragraph. It should tell the reader everything she needs to know to understand what the message is about—leaving her the option to read it later for the details.

Here is a short message:

As part of the ongoing expansion project, several departments submitted renovation plans that exceed $500,000. My understanding is that any plans that cost more than $500,000 will not be funded. Brian Jones sent me the attached message, and on Page 3, he says that the company is willing to consider projects, even if the cost will exceed a half-million dollars.

Can you please confirm that this is the case? Is it correct that the company will pay for construction that costs more than $500,000? I’m hoping you can send me a note clarifying this before noon tomorrow.

Notice that the writer backs into the main point, telling the reader the reason he wrote in the second paragraph. Why not make the most of the first sentence?


I would appreciate it if you could send me a note by noon tomorrow clarifying whether the company will consider renovation plans of more than $500,000 as part of the expansion project.

A longer memo at a mid-west construction company opened with this paragraph:

As we discussed in New York last week, please find attached the latest rendering of the proposed new logo for our construction equipment. The plan is to roll out the look on new products as they are introduced this year and next, with the BigDig backhoe being the first to display the new look.

That tells the reader that the new logo is attached, but it doesn’t tell the reader why the writer is sending the message. Scattered throughout the body of the message were three pieces of information the reader needed:

  • Don’t share this information because it hasn’t been approved. 
  • Please do two things. 
  • Here is the deadline.

Tie those pieces together, and you have something like this:

Attached—for your eyes only—is the latest version of our proposed new logo. Do not share these drawings because they are not final. Please do two things and get back to me no later than Friday, May 26:

  • Review the concept and tell me if you have questions or concerns. 
  • Send me a list of problems that you think might arise from the change, such as outdated wording or dealer complaints. 

Bottom Line

A summary paragraph is challenging, because it’s the inverse order in which the brain normally thinks about information. The brain tends to find a natural starting place and then proceeds in a chronological order.

That’s why many messages begin with “Earlier this year, we talked about X. And then last month, we learned Y, so we had a delay. My purpose in writing today is to ask you ABC.” The writer gradually brings the reader from the past to the present. That beginning-middle-end structure works for storytelling, but it’s not helpful in most email messages, because it’s the end that people want to know first.

About the Author

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach who has helped thousands of business professionals worldwide improve their ability to craft clear, compelling messages. He started Writing With Clarity following a long journalism career with the Associated Press and now conducts corporate workshops and provides one-on-one coaching. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill). His clients include Facebook, GE, Dell, Chevron, Cisco, Georgia-Pacific, KPMG, Campbell’s Soup, Oracle, Motorola, Reebok, Dow Chemical (China), SAP (Singapore), and Vale Mining Corp. (Brazil).

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