Here’s the good news: an executive summary is short. It’s part of a larger document and, as the name implies, summarizes the longer report.
Here’s the bad news: it’s a critical document that can be challenging to write. It’s more difficult to write than, say, a request for proposal (RFP), which is a straightforward description of your company’s history, product or service, schedule of implementation and support.
The pressure of writing an executive summary comes from the fact that everyone will pay attention to it, as it sits at the top of that heap of documents. It explains all that follows and can make or break your proposal or report. The executive summary must know the needs of the potential client and zero in on them like a laser.
What Is an Executive Summary?
An executive summary is a short document or section of a larger business report or proposal. It’s used to give a reader a quick overview of the larger body of material that follows. In other words, it summarizes a report so that executives don’t have to read the whole report to understand its purpose.
It contains a short statement that addresses the problem or proposal detailed in the attached documents, and features background information, a concise analysis and a conclusion. An executive summary is designed to help executives decide whether to go forth with the proposal or not, making it critically important.
Unlike an abstract, which is a short overview, an executive summary is a condensed form of the documents contained in the proposal. Abstracts are more commonly used in academic and research-oriented writing, and act as a teaser for the reader to see if they want to read on.
What Goes into an Executive Summary?
When writing an executive summary there are guidelines to make sure you hit all the bases. According to the many books that have been written about executive summaries, as well as training courses, seminars and professional speakers, the agreed upon length should be about five to 10 percent of the length of whole report.
The language used should be appropriate for the target audience. One of the most important things to know before you write professionally is to understand who you are addressing. If you’re writing for a group of engineers, the language you’ll use will differ greatly from how you would write to a group of financiers. That includes more than just the words, but the content and depth of explanation.
That said, regardless of the target of your executive summary, you want to avoid being long-winded. Keep your paragraphs short and concise. A block of text, no matter how elegant or engaging, can be off-putting. Remember, it’s a summary, and people will be reading it in order to quickly and easily pull out the main items.
You also want to capture a reader’s attention immediately in the opening paragraph. Just like a speech often opens with a joke to break the tension and put people at ease to better hear what’s coming, so a strong introductory paragraph can pull a reader in and make them want to read on. That doesn’t mean you start with a joke. Jokes are hard. Stick to your strengths, but remember, most readers only give you a few sentences to win them over before they move on.
Don’t forget to explain who you are as an organization and why you have the skills, personnel and experience to solve the problem raised in the proposal. This doesn’t have to be a lengthy biography, often just your name, address and contact information will do, though you’ll also want to highlight your strengths as they pertain to the proposal.
It might sound redundant, but begin the summary with a very short, bullet-pointed list of what’s to follow, like a table of contents. Then, as you flesh out those points in the executive summary, be sure to write about the documents in the same order as they appear.
The executive summary should not stray from the material that follows it. It’s a summary, not a place to bring up new ideas. To do so would be confusing and would jeopardize your whole proposal.
Establish the need or the problem, and convince the target audience that it must be solved. Once that is set up, then it’s important to recommend the solution and show what the value is. Be clear and firm in your recommendation.
Justify your cause. Be sure to note the key reasons why your organization is the perfect fit for the solution you’re proposing. This is the point where you differentiate yourself from competitors, be that due to methodology, testimonial from satisfied clients or whatever else you offer that is unique. But don’t make this too much about you. Be sure to keep the name of the potential client at the forefront.
Don’t neglect a strong conclusion, where you can wrap things up and once more highlight the main points.
What to Do After Writing an Executive Summary
As with anything you write, you should always start with a draft. The first draft should hit all the marks addressed above, but don’t get yourself bogged down in making the prose perfect. Think of the first draft as an exploratory mission. You’re gathering all the pertinent information.
Next you want to thoroughly review the document to ensure that nothing important has been left out or missed. Make sure the focus is sharp and clear, and that it speaks directly to your potential client’s needs.
Proofread for Style & Grammar
But don’t neglect the writing. Be sure that you’re not repeating words, falling into cliché or other hallmarks of bad writing. No, you’re not seeking the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, but you also don’t want to bore the reader to the point that they miss the reason why you’re the organization that can help them succeed.
You’ve checked the content and the prose, but don’t forget style. You want to write in a way that is natural and not overly formal, but one that speaks in the manner of your target audience. If they’re a conservative firm, well then, maybe formality is called for. But more and more modern companies have a causal corporate culture, and formal writing could mistakenly cause them to think of you as old and outdated.
The last run should be proofing the copy. That means double-checking to make sure that spelling is correct, and there are no typos or grammatical mistakes. Whoever wrote the executive summary is not the best person to edit it, however. They can easily gloss over errors because of their familiarity with the work. Find someone who excels at copy-editing. If you deliver sloppy content it shows a lack of professionalism that will surely color how a reader thinks of your company.
Criticism of Executive Summaries
Every good argument needs a rebuttal, and while we’re advocating for the proper use of an executive summary, it would be neglectful to avoid mentioning some critiques. The most common is that an executive summary by design is too simple to capture the complexity of a large and complicated project.
It’s true that many executives might only read the summary, and in so doing, miss the nuance of the proposal. That is a risk. But if the executive summary follows the guidelines stated above, it should give a full picture of the proposal and create interest for the reader to delve deeper into the documents to get the details.
Remember, executive summaries can be written poorly or well. They can fail to focus on results or the solution to the proposal’s problem, or do so in a vague, general way that has no impact on the reader. You can do a hundred things wrong, but if you follow the rules, then the onus falls on the reader.
If the potential candidate only reads the executive summary and isn’t interested in the details outlined in the accompanying documents, is this an organization that you want to work with? Probably not. A company that’s not as thorough and dedicated to the project as you are is only going to cause problems over the course of its completion. You always have the option of refusing their acceptance if you feel that the partnership is going to take more than it will give.
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