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Weekly 3: Concise Writing, Synthesis > Summary & Honing Objectives

Summary: Write more effectively by removing unnecessary words. Synthesize findings to make any analys

Idea Journal Weekly 3

March 11 · Issue #25 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Write more effectively by removing unnecessary words. Synthesize findings to make any analysis more compelling. Identify your main objective to get your point across. (~7 min read)
We explored a related topic, the value of removing clutter, using a different set of ideas in an earlier issue

#1. Remove unnecessary words to make your writing more concise and effective.
William Strunk Jr. writes in the influential book The Elements of Style that a sentence “should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should contain no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
He points out that many common expressions violate this principle, including the following examples:
Instead of this: he is a man who …
Write this: he …
Instead of this: this is a subject that …
Write this: this subject …
Instead of this: the reason why is that …
Write this: because …
For Strunk Jr., concise and vigorous writing doesn’t require that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail, “but that every word tell.”
#2. To help identify the key takeaway and major implications of an analysis, aim to synthesize instead of summarize.
Entrepreneur and former management consultant Ameet Ranadive writes that one of the main lessons from his time at McKinsey was the importance of going beyond simply summarizing the facts and data related to a problem, and instead offering synthesis.
For Ranadive and his McKinsey colleagues, synthesis = summary + insight.
Ranadive illustrates the difference between a summary and a synthesis using the below hypothetical analysis of a fictional company’s sales data from the previous quarter.
Here’s an example summary:
50% of deals that reached the contract stage typically closed.
This summary gives you the basic facts of the situation, but it doesn’t answer any of the following questions: Are these results good or bad? How do they compare to previous results? What are we now expected to do?
Instead of just summarizing the data, here’s what a synthesis might look like:
50% of deals that reach the contract stage typically closed. This is pretty concerning, because it’s down from our historical average of 60% close rate. We think there may be two reasons for the decrease: (1) lower sales team productivity, and (2) higher loss rates to our competitor. We need to address this problem quickly, because if we don’t, we’re going to lose market share quickly.
As Ranadive puts it, a synthesis “provides more value and meaning, conveys a deeper understanding of the data and the problem, and builds more confidence with the audience.”
To help ensure that you’re offering a synthesis and not just a summary, he offers the following 3 tips:
1. Highlight the most important takeaway
There should one key takeaway, and you can use the following questions to help identity it:
  • Are these results directionally good or bad?
  • Are the results expected or unexpected?
  • How do the results compare to benchmarks (historical, industry-wide, etc.)?
2. Point out the root causes
Ranadive writes that he was often encouraged to anticipate an executive’s next question when presenting his findings, and that two of the most common questions that came up were: What happened? Why are we seeing these results?
To get ahead of these questions, he suggests being prepared to share your hypothesis behind the findings you’re presenting.
In the above hypothetical example, offering the two hypotheses for why we’re seeing lower sales results helps to anticipate the What happened? question.
3. State the implication(s)
Finally, Ranadive suggests that you present the implications of your findings.
Here are some questions you can use as a guide:
  • What happens if this trend continues?
  • What does this finding mean to the company’s strategic goals and prospects? 
  • What does it tell you about the company’s key business assumptions?
In the same hypothetical example from above, the implication is that if we don’t address the problem, the company is quickly going to lose market share. 
#3. Increase the odds of getting your point across by having a single, clear-cut objective.
Author Milo Frank writes in his book How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less that many businesspeople don’t really know what their objective is, or they choose an objective that doesn’t best serve their requirements and interests.
For Frank, when you enter any serious business conversation (or any situation in which you want to make a point), you need to have a single, clear-cut objective – it’s the thing you want to achieve, the reason you’re there.
Here are some typical objectives in a business context:
  • An employee wants a raise.
  • A salesperson wants to sell a product to a customer.
  • The head of a department wants to sell an idea to management.
  • A client wants to spend less for a service.
Without a clear objective, you’re wasting your time and your listener’s time, and you may be missing out on opportunities to get what you want.
Frank recommends the following 3 steps to identify your objective, so that you can begin to craft an effective message:
First, ask yourself the following questions:
  • What do I want to achieve?
  • Why do I want to have that conversation?
  • Why do I want to write that email?
  • Why do I want to meet with this person?
  • Why do I want that interview?
  • Why do I want to address this audience?
Second, if two or more of your answers to these questions are the same, you’ve found your objective – it must be clear-cut and specific.
Third, once your objective is clear – once you know why – you can begin to prepare your message. Make sure everything you plan to say in your message supports that objective.
As Frank points out, “If your thoughts and words do not introduce, reinforce, or help you achieve your objective, go back to the drawing board.”
Quote of the Week
“It’s often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting. What isn’t shown versus what is. It’s the same for people: What makes us interesting isn’t just what we’ve experienced, but also what we haven’t experienced. The same is true when you do your work: You must embrace your limitations and keep moving. In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.”
- Artist and author Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist
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