Earlier this year I testified in court regarding a construction lawsuit. We witnesses wondered among ourselves how the jurors could possibly grasp the technical details of the case. There were details of the construction procedures; the design, production, testing, and performance of the concrete; the contract provisions; and the accounting. Anyone would struggle to make sense of all that.
One of the expert witnesses clearly had a lot of experience imparting highly specialized technical information to juries. I asked her how she does it. She said that even though the attorney asks the questions, the expert witness should speak directly to the jury. After answering a question in technical terms, they should briefly sum it up in layman’s terms. That is, finish the answer by saying, “What this means is…” That way you can clarify your meaning and describe the implications in terms they can understand and relate to.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Sum it up
The ability to sum up the basic meaning and implications of one’s work is useful in other situations as well. Many engineers aren’t very adept at communication even with other engineers. Yet whether testifying before a jury, giving a presentation, describing your previous experience in a job interview, or explaining to a client, you need to speak briefly and clearly without over-simplifying. Some people refer to this kind of succinct summary as an “elevator speech” because it should take no longer than an elevator ride.
Similarly, in technical writing you can really help your reader if you briefly summarize your main points. A short report to a client could benefit from a summary statement at the beginning and/or the end.
In long reports, there are several places where you need to sum up what you’ve said. No one reads a long technical report in one sitting, and most people never read more than a section or two. To set the context, you need to introduce each main section with a structural paragraph. That paragraph should include a brief summary of any information from the preceding sections that the reader will need to understand what follows. The discussion summarizes the results that lead to each conclusion. And in different ways, both the abstract and the executive summary are highly distilled versions of the entire report.
Getting so much meaning into a few short, clear sentences requires real mastery of the topic as well as a close acquaintance with your reader. That’s why you wait until after you’ve completed the report before you write the abstract or the executive summary. Writing the report helps you hone your understanding so you can focus on what’s important. That way you can get to the point, sum it up, and then stop.