How do TED Talk speakers take vast topics and condense them into brief talks?
These talks, often about complex topics like neuroscience and interstellar travel, captivate their audience, even when the audience knows nothing about the topic prior to tuning in.
So if anyone knows how to distill large amounts of information, it’s TED Talk speakers.
I wanted to know the secret, and after doing some digging, I uncovered three principles that TED Talk presenters follow.
As I considered these principles, I realized you can also apply them to summarize articles.
How to summarize articles in six quick steps
TED has three simple principles for scripting talks:
- Focus on one major idea
- Make sure the script has a structure
- Ensure each point has a purpose and speaks to your audience
Keeping these principles in mind, we can follow a solid six-step framework to summarize articles.
Step 1: Start summarizing by defining your audience
Shayla Price, founder of PrimoStats, describes the biggest mistake people make when writing article summaries is that they don’t write for a specific person:
“Writers forget to add details that matter to their specific audience. Article summaries must adjust based on your target audience's goals and concerns. Answer the question: What should my audience do with this new information?” - Shayla Price
To define your audience, read the article’s abstract for a general understanding of what’s inside. While reading the abstract, think about who will read your summary:
- What’s their level of understanding on the subject?
- What information would they find useful?
- What information is irrelevant?
For example, a summary for an article talking about color psychology can have different audiences that require different information:
- A team lead at a marketing agency might want information about color psychology relating to buyer behavior
- An instructor grading a paper you’re writing might want information proving or disproving the thesis for your paper
- Readers of a graphic design blog might want information discussing the validity of color psychology
After setting your audience, you’ll know which information is pertinent for your summary.
Step 2: Read the article three times
TED speakers don’t hop on stage without a deep understanding of the topic they’re presenting, and you can’t write a summary without one either.
A quick pass through your article won’t cut it, but luckily, you don’t need to read it ten times either. Three rounds is plenty.
Consider your first round your passive round. This round is equivalent to laying on a beach with your favorite book. No critical thinking. No re-reading passages over and over to understand them. Your goal is to get the gist of what’s going on within the pages of the article—that’s all.
Second round (PDF summarization example)
Time to start active reading. Highlight important concepts and leave questions in the margins for concepts you don’t understand.
A symbol legend can also be helpful to organize your thoughts, like color-coding your highlights or using symbols to denote key points.
But be careful you aren’t mindlessly highlighting as you read through the text, otherwise you’ll end up too many highlights that don’t provide any value:
To help you highlight, upload the article to Wordtune Read via a PDF, a link to the report, or copy and paste the in the text.
With the highlighted article from Wordtune Read, I can quickly identify and review key points.
Finally, go through the article one last time and answer the questions you left in the margins. Answering remaining questions gives you a solid understanding of the paper so you’re well-equipped to summarize it.
Step 3: Summarize each page, without plagiarism
Time to write summaries for each page or, if it makes sense, each core section.
Page-level summaries ensure you don’t forget anything relevant when writing a summary for the entire article.
When I uploaded a research paper to Wordtune Read, I got 31 brief summaries. I can copy those summaries and keep them in a separate document. That way, I know I won’t leave out any essential points when I go to write my own summary.
If the summaries don’t fit the audience you intend to write for, you can click the “rewrite” button until you find one that’s suitable. Wordtune Read will help you make sure you summarize the article without plagiarism, since the summarization is automatically paraphrased.
As you read through each of Wortune’s summaries, think back to your target audience. Save any summaries you think they’d find useful by copying or exporting them.
Step 4: Write your summary’s first draft
With Wordtune’s summaries and your marked-up article, it’s time to piece everything together. Again, we can take some direction from TED Talks. TED encourages speakers to have a structured script with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
To write a summary with a clear structure, I recommend using the Inverted Pyramid framework—a journalistic framework designed to take long stories and condense them into bite-sized bits.
- Title of the research paper and author
- Key findings
- Methodology for research
- Supporting research
- Why your audience should care about the findings
- Discuss any limitations
- Review the findings
How to summarize articles with the Inverted Pyramid framework
Front load all essential information for your summary with the necessary data your reader needs to know. Include what the study was about (the hypothesis), citations (title of research paper and author), and key findings.
As you’re writing, ask yourself, “why would my audience find this information useful?” If they wouldn’t find it useful, don’t include it.
Within the middle of your summary, include any details that support the points from above and expand on why your audience should care. This might be methodologies or supporting research mentioned throughout the article.
Finish off your summary by discussing any limitations within the research paper, and review the findings one last time so your reader walks away with a clear understanding of your summary.
Other tips for writing your summary
Keep it short
TED Talks have an 18-minute time-limit. Any longer, and TED knows the audience may lose interest. Your summaries should have a limit, too.
Charlene Burke, a business research professional and copywriter, who has 20 years of experience summarizing research papers, marketing research, and competitive intelligence reports says to keep your summary to 10% of the original text. Comb through your sentences and remove any that don’t add value or context to the main point.
Cite and reference
Always reference the author and name of the paper within the first few sentences so your reader knows right away you’re summarizing an article, rather than coming up with the ideas yourself.
If your summary is several paragraphs long, you can also include citations throughout, as a subtle reminder to the reader that again, the ideas you’re presenting aren’t yours.
Focus on one idea
If you present too many findings in your summary, your reader may get confused or you may weaken the research. To pick the one idea that matters most, revisit the audience you set for your summary and what matters to them. Make sure the idea you present in your summary aligns with the information they’ll find most relevant.
Step 5: Edit and polish
Every great writer’s secret weapon? A few rounds of editing.
To start, make sure your summary doesn’t leave your reader longing for more.
“Color psychology is a popular topic but it might not be creditable.”
This sentence leaves me with questions: Who is color psychology popular with? Why isn’t it creditable?
We can improve this sentence by adding a bit more context:
“Color psychology is popular among graphic designers, but the subject lacks empirical evidence on how it affects buyers’ decisions.”
Afterwards, clean up your summary by fixing clunky sentences. For example:
- Clunky: Although many studies place a focus on a person’s psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses to color, the findings of these studies are often based on small sample sizes and/or small sample groups.
- Fixed: ”Most studies focus on psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses to color, but the findings are often based on small sample sizes.”
Using Wordtune, I rewrote the first sentence and it went from 33 words to 21. The second sentence gets to the point much faster and is easier to read.
Finally, fix any last-minute grammar or spelling mistakes.
Step 6: Get someone else to read your summary
I call this step “the mom test” but you can call it whatever you’d like. Whenever I need to summarize something, I ask my mom to read through my work.
If she understands the main points without knowing about the topic, I know I’ve done a decent job.
Have someone who isn’t familiar with the research paper read through your summary. Does it make sense to them? What unanswered questions do they have after reading it? If you need, go through one final round of edits.
Write article summaries faster with Wordtune
Summarizing articles doesn’t need to be a tedious task that takes hours to complete. Wordtune helps you fast-track the process so you can write compelling summaries in a fraction of the time.
Ready to try it yourself? Gain the skill of summarizing with WordTune Read! Sign up for free today.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.