Boiling it down should make you sweat

Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott: summary of a summary of a summary  ( Image by Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar via Flickr)

Diane Abbott‘s twitter controversy last week was something of a storm in a teacup (white or black tea, it certainly could have done with some more sweetener in it). But what interested me was her defence: that it was hard to capture the context – discourses about the legacy of colonialist thinking – in 140 characters.

Subtle argument probably isn’t suited to the 140 character format; but arguably it is not suited to the vast majority of formats of discourse either.

Some would argue, anything other than full-blown academic rigour is likely to over-simplify, to the point of being misleading, most subjects of any complexity. The only problem is, we don’t have time – and there is such a thing as intelligent debate and opinion forming among non-experts. Surely in a democracy these opinions, though perhaps only partially informed, do matter?

Potted summaries are not to be sneered at – in an ever faster moving information age, where thinking people follow more subjects, but probably in less detail, than ever before, we have to accept that how topics are summarised could not be more important. Because this is how they will be digested.

But how do you get from the the stuff of university theses and ten-year-long studies by brilliant minds to the selection of the 200 words – or God help us 140 characters? Is trying to do this just a delusion – do we just have to accept complex issues should be kept for the experts and perhaps a small highly educated elite? I’m interested in this because I’m about to get involved in some work for the BBC on audience understanding of complex information in news broadcasts. I’ll have a more informed view in a few weeks, I hope.

What happens when you ask an academic to write a potted history

Clearly, if we give up on the ability of the summary to get to the heart of the issues, we abandon a lot of public discourse to a small elite of academics and experts. There are big issues of accountability and democratic disempowerment in that. So for all these reasons, we need to be good at boiling down and summarising now more than ever.

History summary aside, not actually one of the worst Troubles films. For that try Mickey Rourke in A Prayer For the Dying. The Hunger’s pretty dumb too: recalls Leni Riefenstahl in its beautifully filmed but hagiographic portrayal of a real wrong ‘un.  

In research we talk a lot these days about “story telling”. Much of this is for good reason: it’s about bringing our data to life and lodging the key insights in the minds of our audience. But there is a tension sometimes between rendering a clear story that gets rid of needless complexity – a good thing – and one that acknowledges and embraces the fact that some of the complexity IS necessary – an equally welcome grappling with the full truth.

Misleading cinema-goers with the opening to The Hunger is one thing – perhaps it’s not so important whether people understand The Troubles (though I think it is) – but in qualitative research our summaries are what go down as the only real record of what was going on. “Boiling down” is at the heart of what we do. We’re not dealing with the history of Western colonialism, but we do have to write bold simple statements to represent a complicated and nuanced reality. I do wonder sometimes if readers of these documents realise how much wrestling, rejecting, tweaking, and judgment we do before we can be happy with the “insight”.

Finding the right phrase – and avoiding misleading phrases – requires all my experience, knowledge and language skills to get right. The act of summarising is not necessarily a quality-lowering one. Done properly, boiling things down actually forces you to work out more rigorously what the underlying truths are – truths that can lie unchallenged in longer accounts.

I’ve come across colleagues in the past who have criticised some basic-looking qual slides for being shallow. The same people then produce proudly a long set of quant bar charts with a minimum of commentary. I have sat in client debriefs and watched as clients search for rigorous thinking among this, to no avail. Not only are these kind of decks too long, they actually lack real thinking and sense of prioritisation. In short, they don’t answer the client’s questions. Had these colleagues spent more time thinking about the summary, they may actually have got to the point of what the numbers really meant and better advised the client.

I must say these kinds of presentation were more common when I started in research; the quant side of the business does much less of this now. Qual debriefs can also be rambling and fail to get to the point. But the discipline of sweating over the summary means you can often get to more meaning in 3-4 slides than you could have expressed in a whole deck. This isn’t to say just write an exec summary every time. On the contrary, you need to do the long version (or at least think it through in long form) before you can do a really good short version.

A final word from an old qual colleague of mine. He used to often quote an aphorism (I’m paraphrasing):

“I wrote fifty pages because I didn’t have time to write two.”

As I start writing a debrief today, how true …

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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