Let’s solve a communication problem every professional services firm suffers from.

Management consultancies, investment banks, asset managers – all attempt to use content to cultivate their image as agile thinkers. They have to: their value-add proposition is centred on outsmarting their competition.

Accordingly, much of the content these companies produce is analytical and really long. These reports look impressive as printed materials, but digital distribution channels require text that is short, sharp, and on point. Meaning that, one way or another, long-winded content needs to be condensed into tighter messages.

This is a task many struggle with: How to turn a 20-page document into a 500-word summary? Or a two sentence LinkedIn post? Or, heaven forbid, a single tweet?

There’s a recipe for doing that, which I will share in this post.

But before I do, it’s helpful to take notice of what doesn’t work.

When condensing content, editors will often try to trim professional documents using journalism’s Five W’s: Supposedly, a snippet should answer as many as possible of these five questions: What, Who, Where, When and Why. As a result, you can find links to articles or videos with summaries like so:

“You’re going to continue to see a very, very active tech environment.” Goldman Sachs President and Co-Chief Operating Officer David Solomon on why the sector remains poised for growth.

The soft, woolly words “continue”, “remains” and “poised” skid over the fact that there’s one question this summary (and most others like it) completely ignores: So what?

Yes, it supposedly answers a question, but it’s a question no one is asking: “Do tell as I’m itching to know: Why does the tech sector remain poised for growth?”

I could have rewritten this to disguise the source. But I haven’t, to demonstrate that even Goldman Sachs, which is generally very good at producing thought leadership content, falls into this trap on occasion.

Unfortunately, some companies fall into this trap regularly.

Where they get it wrong is by forgetting that their content has only one purpose: To sell. Vividly, I can see that running ticker on your forehead reading: “How did I get tricked into this car dealership manifesto?”

But I’m not talking about money; I’m talking about time. Does it make any difference how smart you are, if people don’t care to look at your stuff?

We’re told people today are too busy, but I don’t believe it. When scouring digital content, people are more likely bored or stressed, and are dizzied with options for spending their time. Where readers see value, they’re happy to follow for more.

And that’s what this recipe is about: Anchoring a story into a particular narrative that our thought is hard-wired to find appealing. It’s called the SCQA method, the acronym standing for Situation, Complication, Question and Answer. This method was developed by Barbara Minto, a former McKinsey bigwig who offers some spectacular writing advice.

Also try this article with an awesome Minto tip, which instantly improves business writing.

Remember that Goldman Sachs example? I’ve watched their video. My question is, does reading this make you want to watch it too?

“How do you invest in tech when every company now uses technology to drive its business?” Goldman Sachs President and Co-Chief Operating Officer David Solomon on where tech investment is heading.

How SCQA works

As its name suggests, there are four blanks to fill:

The first blank is the Situation. That’s where things are at right now. Beware of lofty statements like “The world is changing”. Being as specific as possible about the context you are discussing serves a dual purpose: One, it shows credibility; and two, it gets your readers to SAY YES. These are trust-building mechanisms.

The second blank is the Complication. Examples would be a risk that arises should things stay the way they are, or a problem emerging from the current situation. Remember: a complication for the antelope is a boon for the leopard, so know who you’re writing to.

The third blank is the Question. It should flow naturally, since it’s always to do with solving a problem that arises from the complication, given the current situation.

Ideally, the full article would also be written using this framework, making it easier to condense. But usually this is not the case, and so it’s up to the snippet-writer to noodle out these components.

Just be careful with getting too creative with the summary narrative: remember that by raising a question, you are promising the reader that the article will provide some sort of Answer. If the article is about something completely different, trust is breached, which reflects poorly on the brand.

The two most common mistakes when using the SCQA method

By far, the most common mistake writers make is forgetting to sell, by forcing the text into the structure’s syntax, without paying any attention to the narrative. So you’ll find examples that use a “but” or a “however” to indicate a complication, when in fact the reader couldn’t care less.

If the text is about enticing readers, then it has to be about the reader. It cannot be about what someone else happens to find interesting, even if that someone is the president of Goldman Sachs.

Here I diverge from Minto’s advice on deciding what constitutes a genuine problem. Her advice works well for pitching consulting services, but for attention-grabbing purposes, I think this works better:

At some point during my MBA, a lecturer said there are only three things people ever care about: time, money, and well-being. Applying this observation to our context, a complication for a reader is a risk they’ll either be left with less money, have their time wasted, or have their quality of life deteriorate.

With this, choose “complication words” carefully: That something could or should happen is not a problem right now. An event that might happen can equally not happen – so isn’t a problem right now. But if there’s a growing concern it will happen – I’m starting to feel a problem brewing.

The other common mistake has to do with questions that don’t flow from the complication. Have a look at this:

The situation and the complication set the scene for a discussion on submerged coastal cities. But the question veers sharply to the altogether different issue of submerged island nations. The result is confusing.

Again, recall that professional services firms are all about clever problem solving. So the question must firmly hold hands with the two other components: left hand holds onto an aspect of the reader’s problem, right hand holds onto the article’s content, where the reader is offered an answer.

Only ever use one question, even if more can flow from the complication. Suppose I say: “Bob loves all three of his fish but his favourite one, Sparky, is ill. Where can he get fish health advice and what should he do with the other two?”

Bob has two problems: Getting Sparky back to good health, and keeping the other two from getting ill. An article could certainly address both problems. But a preview snippet should be short and sweet. Choose one problem and stick to it.

Final tip: How to play around with SCQA

Bob and his little fish can also demonstrate how this method needn’t always follow the same order for the situation, the complication and the question.

For advice about cutting stuff short, I’d say this has been a pretty long article. So as a special prize for making it all the way to the end, here’s its summary:

Companies slave at producing long articles, but readers’ attention spans are only getting shorter. How can you condense content into engaging previews?

This article offers a recipe.

Vered Zimmerman

Vered Zimmerman

Vered is an investment writer in our London office. She holds an MBA from Cass Business School and an MSc in mathematics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Vered Zimmerman