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Summarize Succinctly to Be Clear

To understand the importance of a summary in business communication, whether delivered verbally or in writing, consider a typical voicemail message.

Perhaps you’ve been in this situation—you have a few minutes to check email and listen to voicemail. Among the voicemail messages, you find one (or more) similar to this one:

“Hey, Deborah, it’s Jonathan. Just wanted to check in with you to see how things are going. I just got in last night from Chicago. The weather was terrible, and we sat on the runway for more than an hour before we left. But anyway, I’m now in LA and have picked up Flora at her hotel and we’re heading for the client’s site. There are two things that might be a problem here that I’d like to talk to you about before we go in to make the presentation. One involves the safety issue and the other is about pricing. We’re going to stop and get a bite of lunch before our meeting, but it’s critical that we talk because…BEEP!” The message cuts off, at this point.

In the above example, Jonathan was talking as he was thinking. And that’s the problem. His real message is lost among the details and extraneous information. Much better if he would leave a message with his listener in mind; something more like this:

“Deborah—Hi, it’s Jonathan. Can you please call me by about 3 p.m. your time today? My number is 555-222-1234. Flora and I are meeting with a client here in LA, and I have questions about a safety issue and pricing that you can help me with. I’ll be available for the next 90 minutes leading up to the appointment. A call from you by 3 p.m. your time would be very helpful—I’ll only need 3 or 4 minutes of your time. My number is…”

With a message like this, the listener hears the most important information first. Deborah could stop listening after Jonathan gives his phone number the first time, or she could continue listening for more detail on the purpose of the call.

How about emails? When you receive them, do you often find that you have to go back and reread two or three times, sorting and organizing the details to deduce the message because there’s no clear summary that says it all or which guides you? When composing your own emails, make it your practice to do that for your reader: Reread to make certain your message is clear; move the summary message to the first part of the email—directly following any pleasantries (such as a “thank you” to the reader for something they’ve communicated about). Make certain the message stands out—you can accomplish that in an email by putting the message in a separate paragraph, stripped down of details and backup information. Strive for simplicity and clarity.

If it takes a lot of words to say what you have in mind, give it more thought.

—Dennis Roach