How to Write a One Page Results Summary

Autumn 2021

Sharing the results of customer research can be challenging. As researchers we love detailed presentations, with lots of charts and graphs, but that doesn’t work for everyone. When it comes to sharing the right results to the right people we need to craft a summary that gets attention, makes a strong case, and leaves a lasting memory.

Why one page?

The first question about your one-page summary is probably: do I really need one? To answer that, it’s useful to think about what the one page summary isn’t. It’s not a dashboard. It’s not a full report. It’s not a piece of internal comms, although many of the same principles would apply to designing it effectively.

So if you already have all those things (and you probably should), do you really need to add more work to the list? Unfortunately for you, the answer is definitely “yes” if you want your research to get the attention it deserves. It’s useful to be clear about what the purpose of the summary is. It needs to:

• Get attention
• Make a case with specific recommendations (based on evidence)
• Drive action and decisions

These are the “Hook”, “Contrast”, and “Mission” steps that characterise a good business story, and that’s exactly why you need the one page summary.

Unlike the dashboard, and the full slide deck of findings, the one page summary is first and foremost a narrative argument.

You’re making a case, grounded in insight, that supports specific recommendations for action. It’s also an opportunity to signpost people towards the more detailed findings if they’re interested, but you shouldn’t feel the need to include everything in your summary. In fact, the more you can leave out the better!

The one page summary is a narrative call to action, something to grab attention, get across some key information, and drive change. What’s the best way to approach that? I think we need to draw together the best bits from 3 models: the executive summary, the academic poster presentation, and journalism. You’re aiming for something which has the attention-grabbing headline and spare writing of good journalism, the clear explanation of data and visual strength of a good academic poster, and the layer of interpretation and clear recommendations that make for a good exec summary.

What is “insight”?

One of the clichés of the research industry is agencies claiming to deliver “insights” rather than just “research findings”. It’s often more of a marketing claim than a real distinction, but what should you be looking for if you want your one-page summary to deliver insights?

As Jeremy Bullmore explained, the difference between a research finding and insight is the difference between saying: "Product satisfaction arises less from inherent construction and performance than from consumers' internalised perceptions of personal utility.”

and Theodore Levitt’s famous observation: “People don't want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.”

The point is that presentation matters. If you find a punchy, memorable way to put it, ideally with some sort of visual metaphor or image, then it's much more likely to be understood, remembered and applied.

We can expand on that idea to look for a systematic way to turn findings into insight. We start with whatever fact it is we’ve learned, and we synthesise that with things we already know to put that piece of knowledge about the world into context.

That helps us to interpret the fact properly, perhaps drawing some tentative conclusions about cause and effect, and that in turn means that we can apply it to our organisation, making recommendations about what we should do. As important as all the rest, though, is packaging that insight into a pithy, memorable, visual summary (like Levitt’s ¼ inch holes).

Your hook

Let’s turn in a bit more detail to what you might want to include in your one page summary. You’ve got to get the attention of decision makers if your results summary is going to be read, let alone actioned. That means you need a punchy hook. You can’t afford to be careful or diplomatic with your wording.

I’d suggest that a good hook is to state a problem for your audience, perhaps that you’re losing customers to competitors, or that 20% of customers have experienced a problem with a particular touchpoint. It’s always tempting to frame these sorts of things in a positive way, but I’d encourage you to frame them in the most alarming way you can in order to get attention.

If you get that right, you can pretty much guarantee your readers will want to know more, so support your statement with a few killer pieces of evidence.

And, most important of all, make sure you show them that there is something that they can do to address the problem you’ve raised. Bearing bad news is ok as long as you come with a solution as well!

The editorial mindset

A good summary report comes from adopting what I like to call the “editorial” mindset. When you’re analysing the data you have to be neutral. You don’t have an opinion. You find out what the data tells you about the world. Once you’ve done that hard work, though, you need to present it to other people in the most forceful way possible.

You need a very clear, very punchy, headline message. You need to support the argument you’re making with key information that evidences it, quantifies it, and brings it to life. That information should make an appeal to the emotions as well as the rational analysis of your readers.

Finally, you need to make strong recommendations as to what the results you’re sharing mean, and what decisions you think should be taken as a result of them. If you can’t articulate that, then what’s the point of reading your report? What, frankly, was the point of conducting the research it was based on?

The second key part of the editorial mindset is that you should ruthlessly trim away the fat in every aspect of your report. Hone the writing as much as you can. Refine charts and graphs to remove unnecessary clutter.

There’s a saying that “writing is re-writing”, and I think it applies here. The fact that the one-page summary is short doesn’t mean it’s quick to do. In fact, it often takes longer to write a short report than a long one.

Why? Partly because efficient communication takes work to revise, and partly because the narrative required for a summary forces you to think through your evidence, and to produce statements of cause and effect. That’s what makes it powerful.

The cause and effect

In terms of the specific information you need to include, and what your message should be, the details obviously depend on your exact situation, but again we can look for some general principles.

If I had to boil it down to one thing, it would be this: the results you share will be interesting and actionable to the extent that they make links between survey data and other things. In other words you need to be making arguments about cause and effect.

As Professor Tufte said, “Good displays of data help to reveal knowledge relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and effect.”

The point is not necessarily to prove a causal relationship beyond doubt, but to present data in a way that helps us to understand and discuss those possible links.

A good way to think about this is to look at the language you are using. Is it purely descriptive? “Satisfaction is higher in the North East?”, for example.

If so, then look for ways to address causal questions, and the key is often in a small number of words, such as because (“Satisfaction is higher in the North East because of …”), therefore (“Satisfaction is higher in the North East, therefore customers …”), if (“If we invest in our regional hubs to bring them up to the standard of the North East, then…”), unless (“Unless we act to improve in the South West we risk losing these customers…”).

That’s not an exhaustive list, but hopefully you can see the difference between describing a fact about customers and the much more powerful argument you can make by linking that fact to other information about causes and consequences.

“Good displays of data help to reveal knowledge relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and effect.”

Professor Tufte

Be brave

Get out of the comfort zone of reporting back descriptions of what customers said in the survey. Make arguments about cause and expect, talk about what the data means and how it links to our performance as an organisation.

Be visual

Make your one-page summary as visual as you can. It helps engagement, and it makes it more likely that people will remember key information.

Be direct

Make your writing as punchy and direct as you can – as if you were writing copy for an ad, rather than a report. Mike Monteiro suggests, rightly, that saying “if we launch this feature we’re going to get someone killed” is much more likely to get attention than “I have some concerns about this new feature”.

Be receptive

If you can, test your report on other people, ideally someone who doesn’t know much about the survey. Does it make sense to them? Do they follow your argument?

Be prepared

And finally, although it should stand on its own as a document to be read, expect questions. That’s a good sign, because it means people are interested and engaged enough to ask them!

Make sure you’re ready to defend your conclusions, your survey methodology, and have as many facts and figures ready to answer questions as you can. Dealing with questions effectively is an important part of establishing your credibility, and that’s often the final hurdle between your results summary and action starting to happen.

Stephen Hampshire

Client Manager
TLF Research