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Begin your writing process with a summary

Michelle Hicks WEBI’ve been working to help a client streamline multiple policy documents into one handbook. The task is enormous. For years no one was responsible for monitoring information, ensuring it was fresh and relevant, or removing outdated items. Instead, once a manual was drafted, it was stored on the intranet — or the place where documents go to die. How to begin? As I thought about the process, it reminded me of an article on business writing by Phillip Yaffe on the “Secrets of Writing a Truly Useful Executive Summary.”

Yaffe argues that regardless of how complex or dense the information may be, it is truly best if the author begins with a summary. He cites three advantages for the writer:

1. It helps to better understand the audience

2. It establishes criteria for including and excluding information

3. It helps to organize information in a useful way

But it also creates benefits for readers. They get a clear overview of what’s included and they can quickly find the information they really care about. In other words, they understand how to navigate to information that matters to them.

In business, HR communicators use this technique when summarizing plan documents for 401(k) or health insurance plans. And, as Yaffe points out, the technique really isn’t new. Journalists have leveraged these skills for years.

The headline cleverly, or in many cases not-so-cleverly, summarizes the key point in just a few words. The “lead” encapsulates the key points further in the first few sentences. And, finally, the rest of the text supports those points in greater detail. The approach gives readers control. They can determine if they want to continue reading the information or if they can put it aside. Now, while some authors might cringe that their work could be skimmed over and the bulk of it ignored, they should also consider the alternative. If a reader doesn’t have a summary as a choice, she may walk away from the entire document without reading any of it.

The whole point of business writing is to communicate useful information. But, I would argue there is more to it than that. It is really to communicate usefully. If you want to have an impact in your organization, you should start by thinking about the reader. What will her take-away be? And how can you better organize your writing to make sure she gets what she needs.

Michelle Hicks, a senior professional in human resources, is a director in the engagement practice of Buck Consultants, a Xerox company.


About Michelle Hicks