How to Summarize in English
Updated: May 21, 2021
The key to summarizing anything in English is brevity and clarity.
Keep it short and clear.
In this post I’ll share how to summarize a presentation (like a TED Talk) in around four sentences. Here is the link to the TED Talk that I will use for my example summary.
Many TED Talk presentations and other presentations have one main purpose: to build an argument in order to persuade you to take action.
Explain a problem and why it’s important to care about.
Share a solution or opportunity and prove why it works and is important.
Persuade the audience to take some sort of action.
This means that when we summarize the presentation, the following can be a helpful structure:
This may include part of the title, but should not just be a restatement of the title. It should provide context.
Example: “The presenter speaks about what makes employees happy at work and why it matters.”
We should state the problem and why it’s important to care about.
Example: “He claims that the majority of people in the world are not only unhappy at work but that this causes low work performance, high turn-over, and costs organizations a lot of money.”
Solution or opportunity This is the main idea so be sure to be clear. If you need, use more than one sentence, especially if the solution is more complex or has multiple main points.
Example: “The speaker argues that the way to make employees happy and to make organizations successful is to focus on trust, respect, fairness, and listening in the workplace.”
Call to action
Here we summarize the presenter’s challenge to the audience. It may be a call to take action or just to consider an important question. You may also want to consider summarizing the solution within this last sentence or two.
Example:"If we embrace these virtues of trust, respect, fairness, and listening for ourselves and for our organizations, employees and organizations will be happier, healthier, and more successful overall.”
Do not speak in the past tense. Speak in the present tense. Do not express your opinion. Only express the presenter’s point of view. Do not cite all the detailed evidence that the speaker uses for their argument. Do not just quote the key ideas word for word. Use your own words.
Message vs. topic
We must differentiate between summarizing what the speaker talks about (topic) and what the speaker is trying to communicate (message).
Here’s a bad summary example: “The speaker talked about what makes employees unhappy and how it affects their organizations negatively. He gives examples about why it’s bad for everyone. He talks about trust, respect, fairness, and listening. In the end, he challenges us to take action.”
Notice how it only explained what the speaker talked about but didn’t summarize what the speaker was trying to communicate to the audience (message). It was just a vague report with no clarity. So don’t just say, “He talks about this, then this, then this, then this.” That teaches us nothing. We must communicate the core message in our summary.
If you plan to give a longer summary, it's valuable to include a thesis at the beginning. This will allow you to introduce not only the topic but the main argument at the very beginning. However, for short summaries, it's best to follow the above structure.
At the end of the day, there are different ways to give summaries, especially depending on what you are summarizing (books, articles, conversations, etc.) Different people have different preferences. It’s up to you! But often, for presentations, there’s a problem, solution, and call to action.
One thing that you should always remember is this: Keep it short and clear.
“The speaker suggests that…” “The presenter argues…” “He claims that…” “She says that…” “She believes that…”
“The problem is that…” “The solution is…”
“The presenter challenges the audience to…” “The speaker urges us to consider…(question).”
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