I can save you the trouble of reading the blog entry below. I realize you are very busy. Here’s a summary:

  • Communications in the business world rely heavily on PowerPoint-style summaries.
  • At best, summaries omit crucial information and context present in the work being summarized.
    • Without this context, conclusions have to be accepted on faith.
  • At worst, summaries attempt to mask the fact that there is no foundational work to summarize in the first place.
    • This is usually an indication that the topic being summarized has not been explored with much enthusiasm, rigor, or depth.
  • PowerPoint-style summaries should be treated with great caution.

You’re welcome.

Business communications these days rely heavily on PowerPoint-style summaries. I can’t speak to non-business oriented bureaucracies, but I suspect the same is true of many of these organizations as well. Other, greater thinkers than me have already eviscerated PowerPoint as a cognitive tool (get yourself a copy of Tutfe’s essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint here, or read a bit about it here if you don’t want to spent the $7)

I don’t have much to add on that subject. But I do want to weigh in on what I perceive (anecdotally) to be a growing trend towards “high level” summarization of complicated subjects. And even though I already said I didn’t want to talk about PowerPoint, it’s almost impossible not to. PowerPoint is chicken to the egg of high level summaries prepared as bulleted lists.

The good news about well-prepared summaries are that they can distill a lot of complicated information down into a few concise, statements. Done well, this can turn voluminous data into relevant information, and relevant information into good decisions. But even when this is the case, more data and information is lost than retained. That has to be the case, otherwise the summary is useless. And unless the author is also the audience for the summary (which, outside of studying, is seldom the case), the process of summarization requires a whole string of subjective decisions that are not being made by those who require the output of the summary.

There are two problems with this. First, the reasoning behind those subjective decisions is seldom captured. Indeed, there may not even be any reasoning behind what stays and what goes. Which may or may not be okay, but failing to make the subjective reasoning explicit surely isn’t. Second, in the business world, summaries are almost always presented “up”, which means the author of the summary usually has a vested interest in presenting “good” information. Summaries provide an excellent opportunity to do this, since they demand leakage of information. If 90% of the news is rain, it is possible to create a wholly accurate summary that is exclusively sunshine. Sometimes that isn’tjust possible, it is required.

With both problems, the foundational issues is that a summary usually presents information devoid of the context and reasoning used to create the summary in the first place. This works well when the presenter and the audience are very much aligned in their thinking, or the basic assumptions required to create the summary are well-understood and agreed-upon. But these conditions are almost never satisfied, and when they aren’t summaries have to be taken on faith. In hierarchical organizations where “good” conclusions are rewarded, that’s a mighty scary prospect.

An even bigger problem is the growing number of “summaries” that masquerade as concentrated distillate, but don’t actually summarize anything at all. These PowerPoint decks inevitably state conclusions that seem to be commonalities teased from many observations, or numbers that appear to be statistics describing vast, carefully sampled populations. But ask a single question, scratch just below the surface, and you quickly find out that the surface is all there is. There is nothing being summarized at all.

Infinitely worse than the problems described above, this means that there was no context to be lost in the first place, no additional information to be omitted. No study has been conducted, no report prepared, no decisions made about what does and does not belong in the summary. There is just a series of semi-connected bullet points which, having been typed in PowerPoint and dimmed with each mouse click, inexplicably acquire a patina of veracity. There is an old word for this: verisimilitude. There’s a new one, too: truthiness.

Summaries are not inherently bad. Indeed, with the volume of information available in the business world today, summaries are often required for survival. When thoughtfully prepared and well-explained, summaries are a gift from the heavens to those drowning in data. But they almost never are, and it’s worth taking a step back now and then to think about what isn’t being included. Many times, the information left out, and the reasons for it’s omission, are just as interesting and informative as the summary itself.

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