How to Read and Summarize a 20-Page Research Report in 20 Minutes

You were just handed a 20-page research report with the assignment to write a headline and four-paragraph summary that will entice your target audience of business and IT executives to read it. Where do you begin?

Marketing professionals face this problem all the time. They have to take a voluminous amount of data and analysis on a topic about which they may know very little and make it not only accessible but sexy. Often they opt for the two paths of least resistance:

  • Copy the executive summary verbatim.
  • Use vague language to disguise the fact that they don’t understand what the report says.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With a few tricks demonstrated here, you can skim a 20-page report, identify key points and write a summary that can easily be adapted for different audiences in about 20 minutes. The key is to let the authors of the document do most of the work.

We’ll use the big data analytics study from IBM that’s embedded below as an example. The annotations I’ve made in the red boxes show some of the highlights you’ll use to create your summary (if the annotations aren’t showing up on your browser, click the link below the embed to download the PDF).

As you skim the document, look for signposts that point to important information and label them. Here are some labels I use. You can copy these or make up your own.

Key Point – Essential information for one or more of the audiences you need to reach, this is one of the two or three most important findings.

New Insight – Analysis by the report’s authors that challenges convention or indicates new ways of thinking about a trend or problem. In many cases, new insights are the principal value a research study offers.

Important Data – Statistics that support key points or that validate the quality of the research.

Takeaway – Useful information that tells how key points and important data can be put to practical use.

Summary Trend – Attitudes, practices or behaviors that research has identified are common to a large number of people or organizations  and that may indicate change in the market.

Important Sub-Theme – Trends or findings that are not essential to the main topic but which are interesting nonetheless. Important sub-themes are often surprising or unintentional discoveries.

Potential Gotcha – in behaviors or beliefs usually involve risks or tradeoffs. Gotchas are what people worry about. They’re critical to story-telling because they introduce dramatic tension, which makes stuff interesting.

Outsource the Work

The secret to skimming a report without digesting it in its entirety is to let the authors do the work for you. After all, they know a lot more about the topic than you do and they want to show off their best stuff.

Don’t just copy the executive summary and walk away, though. The authors may be addressing a different audience than you are, or they may have downplayed a point that you think is really important. You still have to perform due diligence.

Look for signposts that point you to important information. Here are a few:

Executive Summary – This is what the authors think is most important, and they’re probably right. It’s critical that you read it,

Data – Look for numbers in the body of the report, percentages in particular. These may be Important Data that supports Key Points or Sub-Themes, or they could just be interesting factoids.  Look in particular for percentages of 50 or more. This indicates a majority of the people surveyed  agree on something.

Charts and Graphs – When the authors go to the trouble of extracting data and turning it into an image, they must think it’s pretty important. The information in charts is often critical validation for Key Points. You can extract important numbers to sprinkle throughout your summary or press release.

Callouts – Those are the paragraphs or quotes that usually appear in larger type and are set off from the rest of the text by hairlines or boxes. Page 4 of the IBM report has a callout at the bottom of the page. Callouts are commonly used to add visual variety, but the passages or quotes they contain are usually points the authors think are important.

Subheads – When done right, these denote breaks in the narrative that either take it in a new direction or organize information into categories. The subhead “Defining big data” on page 2 of the IBM study is a change-of-direciton subhead, while “The pattern of big data adoption” subhead on page 10 is the beginning of a whole subsection of the document in which the authors discuss a typical staged approach to deployment. Each subhead within that section denotes a different stage. They’re good bullet points for your summary.

Summary recommendations – Most reports conclude with a summary of the findings. Again, the authors are doing your work for you by telling you what they think matters.

Copy the sections of the report you just highlighted and paste them into a document. You now have all the important elements to work with. In my next post I’ll talk about how to boil that information down into a good summary.

Next: How to Summarize Content for a Business Audience

Attack! Customers Skewer Golden Corral Over Sanitation Issues

The Golden Corral restaurant chain is getting pummeled over photos that were posted to Reddit showing the kitchen overflowing with unwashed dishes and garbage. The Reddit post has spark more than 2,000 comments already, with another 500 or so accumulating on the chain’s Facebook page.

The manager of the restaurant in Port Orange, FL called the incident “a result of the Associate Manager making a bad decision to improperly store food when the corporate inspector made a routine, unannounced visit to the restaurant. I apologize that a member of my management team made this bad decision.”

Judging by the comments on both Facebook and Reddit, apology not accepted.

Links if you want more:
Photos
Reddit discussion
Facebook post

Gordon Gekko is So Last Century

More evidence that the values of the modern workforce are changing not just in the U.S. but worldwide comes from a new Thomson Reuters survey of  more than 1,000 professionals in Brazil, China, India, the U.K. and the U.S. The key finding is that a majority of workers today say they are more motivated by what they do than how much they make. The majority of Americans would rather have a job they enjoy (72%) than one that pays well (28%). Further evidence that Gordon Gekko is a historical relic.

Those who still cling to racial stereotypes should read Daily Beast’s take on the survey: “Workers are now united by global connectivity and curiosity rather than race, class, or gender.” The Beast also notes that the gender gap is rapidly closing, particularly in developing markets. “Ultimately, 52% of professionals in emerging markets see an equal number of male and female corporate executives within the next 25 years,” compared to  36% of professionals in developed markets. In other words, emerging countries are leveraging all their workforce resources to beat us.

Naturally, there’s data on collaboration and social media. Some highlights:

Ninety-percent of professionals who telecommute on a daily basis use at least one social media platform. Comment: Facebook is replacing the socializing power of the office water cooler and powering the distributed workforce revolution. I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone who comes in to the office five days a week. Social networks are transforming the way we work (whether the IT organization blocks them or not).

Fifty-nine percent of satisfied professionals say that their organizations allow them to participate in online groups and/or chat rooms as part of their work compared to 40% of dissatisfied professionals. Comment: Note the “satisfied” qualifier. I wish the IT organizations that still block Facebook and YouTube would get the message: Socializing has always been part of the workplace and is essential to worker satisfaction. Let people use these platforms. They will figure out how to apply them to the business. Just like they did with e-mail and the Internet,

Eighty-two percent of emerging market professionals and 41% of developed market professionals agree that blogs, information from social media or crowd-sourced information on the Internet are highly useful in helping to understanding an issue or news item. Comment: In other words, the developed world still has an old-media mindset whereas people in emerging markets have never had old media. It’ll be interesting to see if their more expansive perspective helps them actually understand the world around them better than we do, and perhaps understand that there is a world beyond their own borders.

Eighty-three percent of emerging market professionals and 49% of developed market professionals agree that carefully filtered information from blogs, social media or crowd-sourcing can be as accurate and useful as traditional media information. Comment: Sort of a restatement of the results above, but it’s further evidence that companies in emerging markets are more adept at internalizing information from many sources. If they continue to build better products at lower cost than we do, we should pay attention to that.

More from Thomson Reuters:

Thomson Reuters data on news consumption

 

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Delay Is Killing Major League Baseball

The Boston Red Sox beat the Colorado Rockies 11 – 4 last night in a game that lasted three hours and 40 minutes. The first four innings alone took more than two hours to play. I was among the 7,000 or so fans who stayed till the end. Most people headed for the exits after the seventh inning, figuring that they had to be functional the next day. After all, it was already 10:30. The game ended to a nearly vacant ballpark.

Baseball games are getting longer and longer, and it’s a worrisome trend. Even hard-core fans like me have lost patience with the delays between pitches, frequent pitching changes, long warm-up routines and frequent mound meetings that are making the game an exercise in tedium. There’s not much we can do about the increasingly generous time allocated to TV ads between innings, but the game needs to speed itself up when players are on the field.

It’s particularly bad for Boston fans. Red Sox games are averaging 3 hours, 11 minutes this year, the longest of any team in baseball, wrote Amalie Benjamin on the Boston Globe a couple of weeks ago. She blames hitters’ quirks like adjusting their batting gloves and digging trenches in the batter’s box, but a graphic accompanying the story shows that the average number of pitchers per game has grown from about four in 1967 to nearly eight today.

Red Sox Win display on Fenway Park scoreboard

Timestamp: 10:51 p.m.

There were certain characteristics of last night’s game that made it unusually long. Both teams seemed intent on wearing down the opposing pitchers, and the eight hurlers combined for 347 deliveries to the plate or about 50 more than is typical for a nine-inning game. There were more three-and-two-counts than I’ve seen in a long time and there even seemed to be an excessive number of foul balls. Can’t do much about that.

But there were stoppages that made no sense. When Stephen Drew’s fourth inning triple required an umpire review, the four men in blue disappeared into the visiting dugout and didn’t re-emerge for eight minutes. Eight minutes! All this to review a play that lasted less than 5 seconds. What were they doing in there, grabbing a beer?

And the usual delay factors that afflict nearly every game were present: Too many catcher-pitcher meetings at the mound, too much time between pitches, too many visits by pitching coaches and too many players futzing at the plate between pitches.

Boston Red Sox

In the seventh inning, leading by five runs, Red Sox manager John Farrell replaced pitcher Alex Wilson with Craig Breslow despite the fact that Wilson had struck out the previous two men he faced, the last one on three pitches. Was this really necessary with a five-run lead? (Breslow gave up a run-scoring single on the first pitch.)

In the eighth, Rockies pitcher Josh Outman backed off the pitching rubber with the batter in the box and took a deep breath to compose himself. The Rockies were trailing 10 – 4 at the time. Just throw the damn ball!

Tough Love

I love baseball more than anything except my wife, my kids and writing, and that’s why I’m so frustrated to see the game turning itself into such a grinding ordeal. The average length of a major league baseball game has increased from less than 2:38 in the 1970s to nearly three hours today, according to the baseball Wikipedia entry. In the 1940s, the average was less than two hours. I still remember watching Jerry Koosman pitch a complete game in the final match of the 1969 World Series. Complete games are almost an oddity today.

There have been many proposals to limit the length of games. Here’s a good roundup published last year. In my view:

  • Major League Baseball needs a pitch clock. If the pitcher doesn’t deliver in time, it’s an automatic ball.
  • There should be a hitting clock, too. Batters spend too much time adjusting their batting gloves and grabbing their crotches. Step up and swing.
  • Catchers should be prohibited from meeting with pitchers at the mound. That’s what signs are for. Do your homework in the dugout.
  • Pitching coaches should be limited to one meeting at the mound per game. The purpose of those meetings is usually to give relievers time to warm up, anyway. So get your relievers up earlier.
  • Pitching changes should be limited to two per inning. OK, maybe that takes an element of strategy out of the game, but it’s ludicrous that pitchers should walk in from the bullpen and go through a full warm-up cycle to throw only one or two pitches. Screw the righty-lefty percentages in that case.

Purists may argue that time limits undermine one of the distinctive characteristics of baseball, which is that it isn’t played by a clock. I’m a purist at heart, but I’m also practical, and I don’t want to see a scenario in which only the purists attend games. People once said the 24-second clock would ruin basketball, but I don’t see anybody protesting today.

People have complained to me for years the baseball games are too long and boring. I’ve always argued that they’re failing to understand the important strategic nuances of the game, but now I’m beginning to agree with them. I’ll never stop being a baseball fan, but my frustration with sitting in the stands during interminable and unnecessary delays is growing. This will probably be my last year as a season ticket holder. I just don’t have the time.

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Update 7/12/13: The Wall Street Journal published an analysis of a sampling of Major League Baseball games that found that the average three-hour game contains less than 18 minutes of action. The biggest time sink: Time between pitches at 51:27.

TheCUBE is Traveling Tech TV

The folks at Wikibon and SiliconANGLE have been traversing the country for the last two years with a cleverly packaged portable streaming video platform they call TheCUBE. They touch down at the site of a technology conference, stake out a couple of hundred square feet of floor space and start pulling in speakers and attendees for interviews. The interviews are streamed live online and archived on the SiliconANGLE Network channel on YouTube. At the recent EMC World Conference they blew through 72 video interviews.

Wikibon founder Dave Vellante is clearly having the time of his life, and they’re making money, too. Conference organizers and sponsors pay for the coverage. Here they are at this week’s IBM Edge conference in Las Vegas, where TheCUBE is at the center of the action and the interviews are playing continually on screens around the conference floor. Congratulations to Dave and John Furrier for a great and well-packaged idea.

TheCUBE at the IBM Edge Conference

 

Security Tips for Social Netizens

I’ll admit that I was taken in the first time I got a tweet like this:

“You gotta see this! lolol bit.ly/ZUT…..

I haven’t been fooled since, but I’m sure plenty of people are fooled every day, particularly when the come-on is from a person they know.

The difference between the Nigerian princess plea, the PayPal password reset email and other famous online security scams we know and love is that social networks make it appear as if the requests are coming from your friends. How can you not stop to help out a friend who’s marooned in an overseas village somewhere after his wallet and passport were stolen?

Digital Defense,a security assessment and software firm, has published this free guide to the most common security dangers in social media. While experienced netizens know that you never click on a link without first checking out the URL, for the vast majority of casual users don’t know how to do that (hint: hover over the link). This free download is worth sharing with the people you work with, and any IT organization should make it required reading for users.

Note, you have to fill out a registration form to download it, but the company doesn’t ask for much. Also, I received no compensation for this post.

 

Surprising Security Gaps at Star-Studded D.C. Gala

White House Press Dinner Party

Time Inc.’s party at the White House Correspondents Dinner

With the specter of the Boston Marathon bombings still looming large in the rear-view mirror, the lack of security at last night’s White House Correspondents Association dinner surprised me.

My host for the event – Thomson Reuters – had prepared me for a gauntlet of checks, and the Washington Hilton was indeed swarming with Secret Service and hotel security personnel. However, when it came to gaining access to the parties where dignitaries had gathered, I found that little more than a printed invitation was involved.

I mean an invitation printed from my office computer. Thomson Reuters told me to bring a photo ID and said an invitation would be sent under separate cover. However, that cover turned out to be an e-mail attachment. I simply printed out the image and stuffed it into my pocket.

To enter the area where the media organizations were holding their parties, I simply presented the printout to the security personnel. There was no pat-down, no metal detectors and no one ever asked for an ID. Once inside, I was free to traverse the parties being hosted by Thomson Reuters, the Washington Post, Time Inc., ABC News and other media organizations, which competed fiercely to stuff the rooms with celebrities from government, entertainment and business.

The dinner itself (which I was not authorized to attend) was considerably more locked down, and President Obama and other top officials entered by secured back entrances. However, there were plenty of important people in the parties outside. I was within five feet of Thomson Reuters CEO James Smith and Washington Post CEO Katharine Weymouth, as well as numerous show business celebrities, television personalities and business executives. While the security measures would have prevented a criminal from smuggling a backpack into the parties, small explosives and firearms would not have been a problem, at least from what I observed.

Fortunately, everyone was there only to gawk and schmooze. The parties were a blast, and I’m grateful to Thomson Reuters for making it possible for me to be there. I just can’t help feeling uneasy that in this age of terror, at a party in our nation’s capital, there wasn’t more being done to prevent a tragedy.

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Who Should I Interview at White House Correspondents’ Events?

By sheer dumb luck (and knowing the right people) I’ve scored invitations to several activities around the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington the weekend of April 27. I’m not invited to the dinner itself (I’m not that well connected!), but I will be at the pre- and post-parties, as well as at the Sunday brunch.

Thomson Reuters, which is my host, is offering to try to set up interviews with its other guests, who are listed here. I’ll have my video camera ready. Question for you: Who should I ask to meet? Give me some suggestions in the comments area below, and if you’d care to suggest questions, that would be even better.

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens (left) – English Actor best known as “Cousin Matthew” in Downton Abbey
Fred Armisen – Actor/comedian best known for Saturday Night Live & Portlandia
Jamie Wyeth – Artist
Jeremy Renner – Actor best known for The Hurt Locker, Bourne Identity, the Avengers
John Baird – Canadian Foreign Minister

Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner (left)– Actress/Activist, best known for Body Heat, Romancing the Stone
Madeline Stowe – Actress/Activist, best known for Revenge, Last of the Mohicans
Mariane Pearl – Freelance Journalist, widow of Daniel Pearl, Writer at Glamour magazine
Mark Carney – Governor, Central Bank of Canada
Mary Jo White – Chairman, Securities & Exchange Commission

Victor Cruz | New York Giants

Victor Cruz

Michael Corbat – CEO, Citigroup
Pat Llodra – Selectman, Newtown, CT
Ruth Porat – CFO, Morgan Stanley
Steve Zahn – Actor best known for Treme
Victor Cruz – Wide receiver, New York Giants
Several Top Chefs from Bravo TV Show ‘Top Chef

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Book Review: Tales From a Veteran Blogger

I’ve been a reader of Ed Brill’s blog for several years, not because of any particular  interest in the IBM/Lotus products that he long championed, but because he’s just so good at blogging.

Opting In by Ed BrillBrill was a longtime product manager for IBM’s Social Business products, where he fought an uphill and often public battle against Microsoft. Brill’s barbs were notable because IBM’s buttoned-down culture had historically discouraged direct public engagement. How did a product manager get away with poking a stick in the eye of a major competitor?

The fact that he did get away with it is one of the sub themes of Opting In, Brill’s new book about social product management. “Only twice did someone ask for me to be fired at the chairman’s level,” he jokes. That seems funny today, but at the time it was a bold test of new management principles that challenged IBM’s 100-year-old prohibitions against individual expression.

Brill’s engaging and readable book is aimed at product managers, those corporate jacks of all trades who fret about everything from market research to customer support. Product managers are the ones who ultimately take the credit or blame for a product’s performance in the marketplace, and Brill sees social media as their ally at almost every level. Opting In covers everything from Google Alerts to Pinterest, and Brill not only outlines the unique utility of each of these tools but usually provide stories to support his points.

Telling Stories

For me, the benchmark of an enjoyable business book is storytelling, and Opting In has stories aplenty. They include detailed accounts of some of his more notable confrontations, such as a 2004 dustup with the influential Radicati Group and a 2010 challenge to a controversial Gartner report. Conventional wisdom holds that you don’t pick fights with these influencers, but Brill went to war and lived to tell about it. The explanations of his reasoning behind these actions are valuable competitive intelligence for any product manager.

Ed_Brill

Ed Brill

Most of the tales in Opting In are more upbeat. For example, Brill tells how a single tweet on a trip to Sydney led to a meeting with a local follower and fellow foodie and a friendship that has lasted for years. Social media is about more than business, he emphasizes. Those glimpses into your experiences, hobbies and interests create touch points that lead to meaningful relationships.

Product managers will learn much from scrutinizing Brill’s insight on topics common to the profession. He introduces the concept of “progressive disclosure” as an alternative to the traditional Big Bang product announcement, with the idea being to use social media to build awareness and buzz leading up to the communication of the news.

He describes how Lotus has increasingly moved toward open product development as a way to integrate user feedback into the process and even shares a story about how his group handled an unforeseen customer backlash to some changes that everyone expected to be a hit. Fellow product managers will relate to all of this.

Opening Up

The hero of the book is IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines, which get a full appendix entry of their own. Brill frequently praises these rules, which are often cited as a model of social media policy, for giving him the courage to take on some of his more notable battles and to continually give voice to his opinions.

The guidelines, which were first drafted in 2005, have changed IBM fundamentally. To dramatize the scope of that change, Brill recalls how he was slapped down by corporate communications in 2003 for identifying an employee in a blog post because, “we don’t have celebrities at IBM.” Less than a decade later, IBM was running ads celebrating individual employees.

“The guidelines…signaled to employees, clients and the market that IBM would stand behind its [people],” he writes. In a day when corporate loyalty seems almost a quaint historical curiosity, the kind of faith must be pretty empowering.

Full disclosure: I have a consulting relationship with an IBM subcontractor.

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I’m Quoted in HBR – Kinda. And Like Three Years Ago…

The type is about as small as they could make it and the quote comes from 2007, but this research report does bear the Harvard Business Review logo, so I’m going with that. The publication date is 2010, but I didn’t find out about it until just now. Thanks for my old pal John Dodge for pointing it out. I guess Google Alerts doesn’t find everything. Here’s the study if you’re interested, entitled “Taking Social Media from Talk to Action.”

Paul Gillin quote in Harvard Business Review research

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