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

“Content Rules” Is an Essential Desktop Reference for Social Marketers

Content Rules bookMy mother used to justify her massive collection of cookbooks by saying that a volume was worth buying if there was just one outstanding recipe in it. By that metric, pages 157-168 of Content Rules are worth the cover price alone. I thought I was pretty savvy about creating content, but authors C.C. Chapman and Ann Handley gave me at least a couple of dozen new ideas. This is a practical and useful book that every marketer who’s struggling with the new world of democratized publishing will find of value.

Chapman and Handley start out with a list of terms that they would like to see banished from the marketing vocabulary, including “leverage,” “proactive,” ”solution,” “drill-down” and “drink the Kool-Aid.” They have good reasons for hating these buzzwords, and I winced to realize that several regularly turn up in my own writing. The authors practice what they preach, though. This book is written in clear, declarative and hype-free language. It bubbles with enthusiasm for the topic and its recommendations are the kind you can take to the bank (there goes another buzzword).

Chapman and Handley are clearly fans of great writing, and it shows in their use of simple language and playful asides that inject a human touch when the text strays into the realm of the academic. They even invented a few new words, such as “re-imagine” as an alternative to the more mechanical “re-purpose.” Early on, they pay homage to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, prompting me to haul out that 105-page masterpiece and re-acquaint myself with the beauty of simple language.

Pages 157-168 lay out 25 rules for successful webinars. As a veteran of more online events than I can count, I found at least 10 great ideas here. For example, how about taking audience questions during the webinar rather than at the end? Or promoting the event with a short podcast? Follow up  with an e-mail inviting follow-up questions. Post the whole thing on SlideShare. Why didn’t I think of those?

Content Rules doesn’t pretend to be a visionary treatise on the future of social media. There are plenty of books out there that do that. This is a hands-on guide that’s meant to be marked up, so bring a  highlighter. The book includes practical tools like the worksheet that Kodak uses to stimulate ideas from prospective bloggers and tips on where to find free art to dress up blog posts. It will even help you decide when to use in-house content experts and when to contract for those services (though some payment guidelines would have been helpful there).

The authors tracked down many new case studies to provide a welcome break from the Zappos and Blendtec examples cited so frequently elsewhere. For example, there’s Sears Yard Guru, which helps potential buyers of lawnmowers choose equipment, and Army Strong Stories, which tells of military life in the words of soldiers in the field. There’s even a chapter devoted to B2B marketing, an often overlooked category that the authors assert can be just as innovative as the consumer marketing sector.

There’s even advice on how to write headlines that are catchy but not cliché. For example, compare “Insights from Social Media Research” to  “The Naked Truth: What’s Hype, What’s Not in Social Media.” Both can describe the same content, but which do you think is more likely to grab attention?

Throughout the book, Chapman and Handley encourage marketers to think big and take chances. Attracting attention on the crowded social Web isn’t about playing it safe, they say, so get comfortable with risk. “I’d worry less about shocking customers than I would about boring them,” says Jellyvision founder Harry Gottlieb in one notable quote.

Content Rules isn’t a book for corporate strategists or CEOs. It won’t give you great insight about what’s coming down the social media road. But it doesn’t pretend to do these things. This is a disarmingly informal, friendly and approachable book that you will want to keep on your desk and consult when the creative muse has fled you, as it does all of us at times. As a recipe for content, it would have made my mother proud.

More Tips for Unblocking the Idea Jam

<a href=This is the second installment in a multi-part series on how to write killer content for your blog. It continues the thread I began last week on how to come up with ideas for topics.

Defy conventional wisdom. This is an old newspaper columnist trick, but it works well. Think of a topic that most people agree upon and argue the exact opposite point of view. For example, try to build a case for why social networks are a passing fad or the New York Jets are the team to beat in the NFL this year (okay, that last one’s a stretch). You have to think creatively to argue your point, and the result may be more satire than opinion, but just let the idea take you where it wants to go. Going against conventional wisdom is one of the best ways to fuel creativity.

Get Angry. The best writing is driven by emotion. Think about something you’ve heard or seen recently that really made you mad. Are there lessons you can share? Or can you abstract the issue into a more general commentary ? Maybe you got cut off by a driver talking on a cell phone. That could lead to a bigger essay on distraction. Let your passion guide you, but be careful not to push the “publish” button till you’ve calmed down.

Aggregate other opinions. Go to a news/blog aggregation site like and browse a category that interests you. Find a topic that several people are commenting upon, summarize their comments and add your own. For an extra twist, try the tactic mentioned in the first item above and arguing the opposite case.

Tell a story. It’s the most powerful form of human communication. Reach back to an experience that was meaningful to you and start writing it down. What did you learn from that experience? How can those lessons help others?

Revisit. The simple act of scrolling through your past blog entries can yield ideas about new topics or new angles on old topics. If your predictions were wrong, tell why. If they were right, build on them.

Conduct a small research project. Two of my most well-received blog entries of the last year were quick experiments, each of which took less than an hour to conduct:

  • Last year, I visited 15 corporate blogs shortly after the financial meltdown and looked at what they were saying about the economy. The lack of attention to this hugely important story was stunning. It made me angry, and that’s a good formula for writing.
  • Last month I picked a stream of 100 tweets at random and analyzed them for content and value. The results surprised me and my essay generated quite a few tweets from others.

Make a list. This is the most popular organizational tools in the blogosphere. Pick a topic about which you have some expertise and offer quick hits of advice. For example: “10 Ways to Research a Company on the Web,” or “Seven software utilities I couldn’t live without.” Or you can skip the numbers and just organize your thoughts in modules, like I’m doing here. I get tired of all the numbered lists after a while, but I have to admit, readers love ’em.

Predict. Predictions are hugely popular at the end of the year, but you can make them any time. To add variety, limit your time frame or endpoint. Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz did this effectively with the 500th edition of their “For Immediate Release” podcast by asking their listeners to predict what topics the two will be discussing during their next 500 shows. Pick a topic, make a prediction and argue your case. Then revisit later and write about how you did.

Recommend. Are there blogs, discussion forums, podcasts or how-to websites that you love? Write them down, tell what you like about each and share them with your readers.

Explore everyday things. This is an offbeat approach, but it’s a great way to satisfy your curiosity while delving into little-known corners of the Web. Pick a topic about which you know very little and research it. For example, learn why golf balls have dimples or find the origin of the phrase “the whole 9 yards.” This work may have limited relevance to your business, but it’ll probably yield a fascinating tidbit of information and help you learn new ways to find things online.

Serialize. Take any of the ideas above and publish it as short thematic entries. Few people read long articles anymore, anyway, so break out those ideas and sprinkle them around. Just be sure to tag and categorize them appropriately so you can reassemble later.

I could go on. There are dozens of other ways to generate ideas. But let’s hear from you. Comment below on some tactics that you use to unblock those creative juices.