Why you've been summarizing the wrong way your whole life

Why you've been summarizing the wrong way your whole life

Aug 1, 2021 05:26 PM
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Aug 1, 2021 05:36 PM
Dominic Zijlstra
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A better way to remember books
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I finally found a solution to remember books I read.
I've written many summaries of books I've read in the past, spread across different note-taking systems. But if you ask me about any of those books now, I likely won't be able to tell you more than 1-2 sentences.
Clearly those summaries haven't helped me remember much.
In this essay, I'll explain why traditional summaries don't work to learn and remember. I'll then present my self-tested solution, and will give you a short example on the way so you can test it for yourself.
First of all, how do we usually write summaries? General education teaches us some form of what I'll call the bullet point summary: a list of the main ideas and principles in the book.
I've been writing bullet point summaries for most of my life, and while I noticed that some structures worked better than others (nesting and including examples helped), overall the return on investment has been pretty low.
As I've gotten more into metacognition and "superlearning", I've slowly come to understand why they're so ineffective. I then finally developed an inverse approach to writing summaries, which I'll share here so you can avoid wasting more time on bullet point summaries and start remembering what you read.
As an example throughout this article, I'll use the brilliant book "Never split the difference" by Chris Voss. He uses his experience as a hostage negotiator to teach effective negotiation techniques which help you let your boss, clients, partners, spouse and children have it your way. These are some powerful techniques I really want to remember.
Why remember in the first place? Can't we recall anything with a quick Google search nowadays? The answer is yes, you can quickly find the information again. But to get fluent in the skill, the ideas need to be in your brain first. Only when they're in your brain can you recall them at the exact moment you need them and apply them in real life. And application is what really matters and makes you fluent.
Let's now look at the bullet-point summary Chris provides for the first chapter of his book (I've shortened it even further):
  • A good negotiator prepares and is ready for surprises
  • View assumptions as hypotheses to be tested
  • Negotiation is not a battle of arguments, but a discovery process
  • Slow. It. Down. Going too fast makes people feel unheard and damages trust
  • Smile to get better collaboration
  • Use the calm, slow, late-night FM DJ voice to communicate authority without triggering defensiveness
    • Your default voice should be the positive/playful voice: relax and smile
  • Magic mirrors: repeat the last three words the other said to empathize, bond and keep them talking
It's a pretty standard bullet point summary. If you haven't read the book, you probably get a sense of what it's about, but you're unlikely to remember and apply those ideas.
I see three main reasons why these bullet point summaries are so ineffective.
First, they reduce a book to a list of isolated points. Your brain doesn't have anything to connect them to. And anything that can't be connected to what you already know is quickly forgotten.
Second, it's quite boring. While I went "wow" a couple of times reading the book chapter, you're unlikely to go "wow" reading this summary. And those "wow" moments are when learning happens. They're moments of emotion, and learning is highly emotional. No emotion means we're unlikely to come back to it, or tell our friends.
Finally, presenting information this way assumes that our brain can take some general ideas and then recognize instances in real life where we can apply those ideas. But our brains are quite bad at working from first principles. By contrast, we're masters at reasoning by analogy and matching patterns: give us one example, and we can easily recognize and think of other instances.
(Fun fact: a machine learning algorithm needs to see thousands of cats to be able to recognize one. A kid only needs to see one.)
In what form could we present the information to overcome these problems? If you've paid attention, there is an obvious candidate... stories!
Stories are memorable. Every story has some things we can relate to. Stories have emotion and make us go "wow"! We love to tell and retell stories and share them with others (learning by teaching!).
Yet formal education tells us that stories are for entertainment, for children. Education happens in textbooks and abstracts.
Many of the smartest people have tacitly recognized that it's actually the other way round.
Listen to any interview with Warren Buffett, and you'll soon see that he is mainly telling stories. He is a master at storytelling, and often condenses them into a short folksy saying ("you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out."). Super easy to remember, and communicating a fundamental principle.
Many non-fiction writers are also great at this. They'll often introduce a new concept by telling a story. In fact that's exactly what Chris Voss does in each chapter.
But then at the end he leaves you with the bullet point summary mentioned above. I dutifully gathered all the bullet points into a full book summary, but, surprise, had forgotten 80% of those points the next day.
So then it struck me, you have these great stories in the book. All you need to do is make the story the thing the reader takes away at the end, and connect it with the bullet points.
So I wrote down three shortened stories from the book, and I inserted the bullet point learnings at the corresponding story events. A total of 30 bullet points.
The next day I tried to recall the stories. No problem (who ever forgets a good story?).
And as I was recalling the stories, I also tried recalling the bullet points. To my surprise, I was able to recall 29/30 correctly!
I'll share the story I used for the bullet point summary above. It's a shortened version of the story Chris Voss tells at the start of the chapter.
This way you can test the method for yourself.
Since you will be reading the story rather than actively writing it, I'd expect recall to be slightly lower, but still much higher than if I gave you just the bullet point summary.
In fact I've made the reading process more active by turning each of the bullet point learnings into a story-related question, forcing you to actively think about what you can learn from the story.
Keep in mind that I'm not a writer, so my version of the story may seem a bit bland. Imagine how much more powerful it could be if great storytellers wrote these story-based summaries!

Now, if you try to recall this story tomorrow, I bet you'll remember most of it. And, you'll also remember most of the learnings (as you might have noticed, I provided the acronym APDEFSUM which makes it easier to recall if you forgot one of them).
In my case, I was even able to recall some of the learnings in a real negotiation about a partnership, and got a better outcome because of it. This was because I could match my real life to the story from the book. Had I just learned the bullet point, I probably wouldn't have made this connection even if I'd remembered the bullet point.
My prediction is that you'll easily achieve 90% retention, and will be able to apply what you learn in real life.
I'm very excited to run this experiment with you, and would love you to tell me about the results you're getting!
And next time you want to remember a book, don't waste your time with bullet point summaries! Take some of the key stories the author is telling, and connect them to the key ideas the author is teaching.
I'll be sharing the other stories from Chris Voss' book soon, so I can present you with the first full Story-based Summary!
P.S. the idea of Story-based Summaries may remind you of memory palaces, that powerful tool to remember vast amounts of information. And indeed story-based summaries rely on the same principles as memory palaces: they use the powerful visual and auditory cortex, and relate new things to learn to things you're already familiar with. Unfortunately for most, mind palaces have a high barrier to entry which makes them impractical for day-to-day learning. This is the gap story-based summaries fill.

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