How to Write an Executive Summary: A Quick Guide

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Writing an Executive Summary

Here’s the good news: an executive summary is short. It’s part of a larger document like a business plan or project proposal 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 because an executive summary serves several important purposes. On one hand, executive summaries are used to outline each section of your business plan, investment proposal or project proposal. On the other hand, they’re used to introduce your business or project to investors and other stakeholders, so it must be persuasive to spark their interest.

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 business plan or project plan. The executive summary must know the needs of the potential clients or investors and zero in on them like a laser. Fortunately, we’ll show you how to write and format your executive summary to do just that.

What Is an Executive Summary?

An executive summary is a short section of a larger document like a business plan, investment proposal or project proposal. It’s mostly used to give investors and stakeholders a quick overview of important information about a business plan like the company description, market analysis and financial information.

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 and investors decide whether to go forth with the proposal or not, making it critically important. Pitch decks are often used along with executive summaries to talk about the benefits and main selling points of a business plan or project.

Unlike an abstract, which is a short overview, an executive summary format 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.

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How to Write an Executive Summary

Executive summaries vary depending on the document they’re attached to. You can write an executive summary for a business plan, project proposal, research document, business case, among other documents and reports.

However, when writing an executive summary there are guidelines to make sure you hit all the bases.

Executive Summary Length

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 for an executive summary format should be about five to 10 percent of the length of the whole report.

Appropriate Language

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. Remember, it’s a summary, and people will be reading it in order to quickly and easily pull out the main points.

Pithy Introduction

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 business plan or project proposal.

Relevant Information

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.

structure of an executive summary

What to Include in an Executive Summary

The content of your executive summary must reflect what’s in the larger document which it is part of. You’ll find many executive summary examples on the web, but to keep things simple, we’ll focus on business plans and project proposals.

How to Write an Executive Summary for a Business Plan

As we’ve learned above, your executive summary must extract the main points of all the sections of your business plan. A business plan is the document that describes all the aspects of a business, such as its business model, products or services, objectives, marketing plan, among other things. They’re commonly used by startups to pitch their ideas to investors.

Here are the most commonly used business plan sections:

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  • Company description
  • Products & Services
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Market Analysis
  • Marketing Plan
  • Financial Planning
  • Funding Request

Executive summaries are also a great way to outline the elements of a project plan for a project proposal. Let’s learn what those elements are.

How to Write an Executive Summary for a Project Proposal

An executive summary for your project proposal will capture the most important information from your project plan. Here’s the structure of our executive summary template:

  • Introduction: What is the purpose of your project?
  • Company description: Show why you’re the right team to take on the project.
  • Need/Problem: What is the problem that it’s solving?
  • Unique Solution: What is your value proposition and what are the main selling points of your project?
  • Proof: Evidence, research, feasibility studies that support how your company can solve the issue.
  • Resources: Outline the resources needed for the project
  • Return on Investment/Funding Request: Explain the profitability of your project and what’s in for the investors.
  • Competition/Market Analysis: What’s your target market? Who are your competitors? How does your company differentiate from them?
  • Marketing Plan: Describe sales, marketing and partnership plans.
  • Budget/Financial Planning: What is the budget baseline that you need for your project plan?
  • Timeline: What is the estimated timeline to complete the project?
  • Team: Who are the project team members and why are they qualified?
  • Conclusions

Now that we’ve learned that executive summaries can vary depending on the type of document you’re working on, you’re ready to use our executive summary template.

Executive Summary Template

So, to put all of that information together, here’s the basic format of an executive summary sample. You can find this same information in our free executive summary template:

  • Introduction, be sure to know your audience
  • Table of contents in the form of a bulleted list
  • Explain the company’s role and identify strengths
  • Explain the need, or the problem, and its importance
  • Recommend a solution and explain its value
  • Justify said solution by explaining how it fits the organization
  • Strong conclusion that once more wraps up the importance of the project

You can use it as an executive summary example and add or remove some of its elements to adjust it to your needs. Our sample executive summary has the main elements that you’ll need for a business plan or project plan executive summary.

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 casual 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.

ProjectManager Turns an Executive Summary into a Project

Your executive summary got the project approved. Now the real work begins. ProjectManager is an award-winning project management software that helps you organize tasks, projects and teams. We have everything you need to manage each phase of your project, so you can complete your work on time and under budget.

Work How You Want to Work

Because project managers and teams work differently, our software is flexible. We have multiple project views, such as the kanban board, which visualizes workflow. Managers like the transparency it provides into the production cycle, while teams get to focus only on those tasks they have the capacity to complete. Are you more comfortable with tasks lists or Gantt charts? We have those too.

Kanban board in ProjectManager.com

Live Tracking for Better Management

To make sure your project meets time and cost expectations, we have features that monitor and track progress, so you can control any deviations that might occur. Our software is cloud-based, so the data you see on our dashboard is always up-to-date, helping you make better decisions. Make that executive summary a reality with ProjectManager.

ProjectManager.com dashboard has live data for better tracking

You’ve now researched and written a persuasive executive summary to lead your proposal. You’ve put the work in and the potential client sees that and contracts you for the project. However, if you don’t have a reliable, easy-to-use and robust set of project management tools like Gantt charts, Kanban boards and project calendars at hand to plan, monitor and report on the work, then all that preparation will be for naught.

ProjectManager is a cloud-based project management software that gives you real-time data and a collaborative platform to work efficiently and productively. But don’t take our word for it: take a free 30-day trial.

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