Summarizing

The ability to summarize smoothly, succinctly and thoroughly is a core skill for a moderator or any discussion facilitator. And while it may appear to be one of the simpler elements of a meeting, summarizing can sometimes be surprisingly challenging.

What is Summarizing?

Give a brief statement of the main points of each discussion, reflect a member’s contribution to the discussion, or “put in a nutshell” the high points, ideas and/or conclusions of a discussion.

Why Summarize

  • To keep the agenda on track and reinforce the value of the meeting experience and discussions.
  • Helps the group recognize all they have accomplished together, and highlights the benefits of the shared experience.
  • Helps you to keep focused.
  • It’s also a helpful technique in keeping participants on track or dissuading those who might be inclined to derail the topic or take over a discussion.
  • In addition, it helps to ensure that any follow-ups or future topics are captured.

When to Summarize

Summarizing is valuable throughout the meeting; as you go through a longer conversation, at the conclusion of an agenda item, before or after longer breaks, at the end of the meeting.  The summary creates an end point for one conversation, and an opportunity to transition, some examples include:

  • Someone is monopolizing the conversation. One way to deal with this situation is to enlist the help of the monopolizer: “Terry, you’re making some important points here and I want to make sure we’ve captured that. Can I ask you to quickly summarize your key points so I’m sure I get it down?”
  • You have run out of time, and need to transition to the next agenda item (and you want people to feel satisfied with what was discussed, and ready to move one the next thing).  Some topics are so rich and complex, the group could continue the discussion for a week—but there is a very finite amount of time on the schedule and other topics are also important. By focusing on all of the good conversation that has taken place, you can take the emphasis away from the perception that you are cutting the conversation short. If appropriate, continuing the inquiry into this area may become a follow-up item.
  • The group is not focused, people begin repeating one another, and the discussion becomes circular. There is a certain linearity to a summary that can help get people looking in the same direction (ahead).
  • Everyone agrees, and yet…they are still talking about it.  Sometimes everyone has contributed, the conversation is complete, and someone just needs to let them know that’s over. Yes, there are some agenda items they could discuss all week—others, not so much.
  • Clarifying a particular idea or point made by an individual. Some ideas may benefit from clarification as you summarize.  (“What I think I heard you say was…”) This should be done infrequently, and only when you sense that a participant’s point is getting lost in translation.  It needs to be done with some delicacy, but you do want to make sure that everyone understands what the individual (or the group) actually meant.
  • When there are multiple sub-topics, insert frequent, short summaries to help the group stay focused.
  • As standard practice in wrapping up a session, or the meeting overall.

Who should summarize

  • You, as moderator: The summary needs to happen to close out an agenda item; you should ensure that either you do this, or a participant does.
  • The member(s) who led the discussion may also benefit from summarizing what they heard as a mechanism for internalizing the feedback and any follow ups they have from the discussion.
  • A volunteer from among the participants may jump in or if you need to get more members talking, you can solicit someone to summarize.

Regardless of who does the summarizing, it’s the Moderator’s role to ensure that someone is ready to summarize and that it happens.

How to Summarize

  • Offer the summary, and ask for confirmation of the group or input on how to better characterize the conversation.
  • Even in a collaborative environment, there will be divergent viewpoints. Safeguard your neutrality: use the participant’s words and phrases to best capture the conversation accurately, and to help avoid putting your own spin on the subject.
  • Practice, and hone your technique. It can be a challenge to summarize in a FEW words rather than revisiting the entire discussion and taking too much time and too many words.
  • Leave yourself enough time to summarize. Don’t let the conversation run until there’s two minutes left.  The summary is an essential part of the process; allowing enough time for participants to contribute their thoughts will help to ensure that the summary is accurate, and will reinforce to the participants the value of the interactions they have shared. The summary can be as collaborative as the conversation—either through active participation, or active listening and assent of the group.

Phrases

  • Before we wrap up, let’s quickly review the key points raised…
  • If I understand correctly, some of you feel this way about …
  • There seem to be the following points of view about this:
  • There was a very broad range of opinion on this:
  • A number of issues emerge during our conversation. . .
  • I think we agree on this perspective:  what we are saying is that…

If at first…

The summary discipline is a valuable tool for you, as moderator, to use as the meeting progresses. If you’re finding it difficult to summarize at the end of an agenda item, take a step back and review what’s happening. The summary may serve as an indicator that:

  • the agenda is being hijacked by one or more participants, and you may need to manage the process more closely.
  • the agenda is off and the conversations that are actually happening are the ones the participants really need or want to have. If that seems to be the case, you may want to check-in more specifically with the group to confirm that they are on board with these deviations from the agenda, perhaps check in with individual participants, who may be invested in some particular aspects of the agenda.

Final Meeting Summary

The final summary is an opportunity for the members to survey all that they have accomplished together. In addition to describing all of what has happened, the summary should remind participants of any commitment made and specific takeaways as well as next steps. It is also a chance to celebrate their hard work, collaborative accomplishments, and growth. An effective ending to the meeting is what they will carry away with them, and is just as or more important than a strong opening.