Executive summary tips and why the Barr/Mueller summary is driving everyone nuts

Don’t summarize: drive points home with highlights. That’s how you should summarize a long report. It’s also why no one is satisfied with Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

If you write, you have to write summaries. Think of a summary as a movie trailer: it gives you the general idea what happened, shows the highlights, and suggests more detail is available.

In my experience, writers often share the misconception that the purpose of a summary is to summarize — that is, to deliver an overarching statement that describes a whole document. Such summaries are boring and uninformative.

For example, the Red Sox played last night. Here’s how a knee-jerk summarizer would write about it:

The Oakland A’s beat the Red Sox 7-0 in Oakland. The Red Sox now have one win and four losses, while the A’s are 4 and 3.

However, as a Red Sox fan, I’d write a very different summary. It would look like this:

Boston starting pitcher David Price pitched 6 innings and gave up 3 home runs as the A’s shut out the Red Sox 7-0 last night. The Red Sox are supposed to have the best starting pitchers in the game; instead, in five games, those pitchers have given up home runs, lasted only a few innings, and generally stunk. Their first two Red Sox hitters, Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, were hitless and have generally lacked punch. This team is off to the worst start in decades.

Someone else (like an A’s fan, or Sox manager Alex Cora) would write a different summary. And that’s the point. When we summarize, we choose which facts to include, not just a bland description of what happened.

Here’s another example. I just wrote a book on artificial intelligence with P.V. Kannan. The unthinking summary would follow the table of contents:

This book talks about customer service chatbots, which it calls virtual agents. It’s based on the concept of intent: the virtual agent has to figure out what the customer wants. Virtual agents are good for customer service, not yet ready for sales, and work well with humans in many contexts. There are problems with virtual agents on conversational platforms, challenges getting them approved, and hurdles to connecting them corporate systems.

Snore. On the other hand, if you go to Amazon or read the book flap, here’s what it says about the book:

Have you ever wished that every company you interacted with could just know what you wanted and go get it for you? That when you picked up the phone or opened a chat window that the company would use what it knew about you to anticipate your needs?

We are on the verge of a future just like that.

The age of intent is a world where the smartest of chatbots-virtual agents-are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and connected to a customer’s complete past history. These virtual agents can anticipate just what a customer is looking for, answering questions through chat, on the phone, and through smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa. They’ll transform the business world with efficient, scalable service that’s available 24/7 and gets smarter every day.

In these pages you’ll learn about the companies that have used virtual agents to deliver a superior customer experience. You’ll see how:

  • Auto rental company Avis Budget used virtual agents to automate 68% of service calls, saving millions of dollars every year.
  • Danish bank Nordea’s virtual agent Nova identified thousands of intents, handled 20,000 conversations a month, and reduced emails and calls by 25%.
  • Satellite operator Dish Network’s agent DiVA responded to 4 million queries a year and helped meet surging demand for pay-per-view events.
  • Restaurant chain TGI Fridays used a Facebook Messenger chatbot to boost take-out orders by $150 million a year.
  • Butterball ported its Turkey Talk-Line to Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker, serving 20,000 customers in the reassuring voices of its most trusted turkey advisors.

I hear you saying “Sure, but that’s marketing copy.” Of course it is. All summaries are marketing copy. They sell you on the idea of believing in the content that follows.

Notice the detail. This book is not about TGI Fridays or Butterball. It is not about Nordea handling 20,000 conversations a month. But those details are convincing. They make it much more likely that you’ll believe in virtual agents, even if you don’t read the book.

The Barr summary is lame

William Barr and his staff read a report that was nearly 400 pages long. Then he wrote a “summary” letter to Congress. (He’s backed off from calling it a summary, but that’s how he originally described it.) What did the Barr summary of Robert Mueller’s report say? Here’s the substantive part of it.

The report explains that the Special Counsel and his staff thoroughly investigated allegations that members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, and others associated with it, conspired with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or sought to obstruct the related federal investigations. In the report, the Special Counsel noted that, in completing his investigation, he employed 19 lawyers who were assisted by a team of approximately 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, and other professional staff. The Special Counsel issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for communication records, issued almost 50 orders authorizing use of pen registers, made 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence, and interviewed approximately 500 witnesses.

The Special Counsel obtained a number of indictments and convictions of individuals and entities in connection with his investigation, all of which have been publicly disclosed. During the course of his investigation, the Special Counsel also referred several matters to other offices for further action. The report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public. Below, I summarize the principal conclusions set out in the Special Counsel’s report.

Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

The Special Counsel’s report is divided into two parts. The first describes the results of the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The report outlines the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts. The report further explains that a primary consideration for the Special Counsel’s investigation was whether any Americans – including individuals associated with the Trump campaign – joined the Russian conspiracies to influence the election, which would be a federal crime. The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

The Special Counsel’s investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election. As noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated with the IRA in its efforts, although the Special Counsel brought criminal charges against a number of Russian nationals and entities in connection with these activities.

The second element involved the Russian government’s efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election. The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks. Based on these activities, the Special Counsel brought criminal charges against a number of Russian military officers for conspiring to hack into computers in the United States for purposes of influencing the election. But as noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.

Obstruction of Justice.

The report’s second part addresses a number of actions by the President – most of which have been the subject of public reporting – that the Special Counsel investigated as potentially raising obstruction-of-justice concerns. After making a “thorough factual investigation” into these matters, the Special Counsel considered whether to evaluate the conduct under Department standards governing prosecution and declination decisions but ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction. Instead, for each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as “difficult issues” of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime. Over the course of the investigation, the Special Counsel’s office engaged in discussions with certain Department officials regarding many of the legal and factual matters at issue in the Special Counsel’s obstruction investigation. After reviewing the Special Counsel’s final report on these issues; consulting with Department officials, including the Office of Legal Counsel; and applying the principles of federal prosecution that guide our charging decisions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense. Our determination was made without regard to, and is not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.

In making this determination, we noted that the Special Counsel recognized that “the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,” and that, while not determinative, the absence of such evidence bears upon the President’s intent with respect to obstruction. Generally speaking, to obtain and sustain an obstruction conviction, the government would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person, acting with corrupt intent, engaged in obstructive conduct with a sufficient nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding. In cataloguing the President’s actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent, each of which, under the Department’s principles of federal prosecution guiding charging decisions, would need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction-of-justice offense.

To summarize this summary: Mueller’s report says the campaign did not collude with Russia and neither proves nor disproves whether President Trump obstructed justice.

This is like the headline about the Red Sox losing 7-0, or the book talking about virtual agents. It is not inaccurate. But it is missing something.

We expect our summaries to tell us details, because those details are what matter. Robert Mueller issued 2,800 subpoenas and interviewed 500 witnesses. What did he find? What did the members of the campaign staff do? What did they not do? What went into the obstruction finding, and why is the result inconclusive. What happened?

From the thousands of summaries of events and reports that we’ve all read in journalists’ articles, marketing pages, and documents of all kinds, we have all learned to expect details. We want to know not just top line conclusions, but highlights of the arguments that support them.

Once the Mueller report comes to light (and it will), all manner of people will attempt to summarize it. Their summaries will all be different. But whoever they are, they’ll hit highlights and we’ll learn things from the details they choose to include.

Make sure you include crucial details in your executive summaries. Otherwise you’ll leave your readers as flat as we all feel now after reading Barr’s “summary.”

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  1. Had a chuckle at “most trusted turkey advisors.” As if turkeys needed advising.

    Come to think of it, maybe they can advise the bird-brains who currently run the Justice Department.

  2. Thanks for showing how crucial details make a “summary” more satisfying. I will apply that insight in future compositions.

    Also, I spotted a misused homophone– “right” : “Someone else (like an A’s fan, or Sox manager Alex Cora) would right a different summary. ”

    With many thanks for your thoughtful critique of current-day writing examples,