How to write a compelling executive summary
Getting your document actually read is a competitive business. Never mind winning the business itself.
Whether your readers are buyers, approvers, technologists or accountants, some of them may not read further than your executive summary.
So that’s the section to get absolutely right.
You may think an executive summary is there to summarise your business case. If so, erase that thought. Its real purpose is to grab interest and keep your readers reading.
Think of it as your elevator pitch, and nothing less.
How to start
As you know, a proposal, business plan or business case doesn’t start at the beginning and work through to the end. It starts at the end point, at the beneficial outcome of the proposition.
Consequently, that’s where you need to focus.
Explain in compelling language the significant benefits that your proposition will generate. Then detail how you will achieve those benefits in rest of the executive summary.
Clarity, focus and energy is needed to keep your readers reading. But above all, your proposition needs to offer demonstrable value. Here are the key elements to an executive summary:
Lead with the most dramatic, compelling and interesting thing you can think of. Whether it’s to solve a problem, exploit a situation or to make money, start with a clear statement of purpose.
Your words need to grab attention and generate appeal within perhaps 30 seconds. So, you need to be direct and specific.
Use concrete words and phrases in preference to the abstract. Use strong verbs and explain how you are going to achieve your proposition.
If you have a credibility statement – perhaps another organisation has adopted your product, service or idea and made millions – state that fact in the first paragraph.
Never hide a key message in the body of the text and summarise the benefits your ideas will bring in jargon free, easily understandable English.
Situation - problem or opportunity
Describe the problem, pain and or opportunity which your proposition satisfies. Whilst it’s a summary, don’t skimp on adequate detail. You need to demonstrate that you fully understand the situation.
If you are addressing a customer problem, the customer will want to see that you have a complete grasp of the problem. Don’t downplay its seriousness.
What is it that you are offering? Summarise your proposition and your approach to the situation, stage by stage. Ensure that someone not involved with your proposition could easily understand what it is that you are proposing to do.
Whether your document is problem or opportunity focused, provide a summary of the market in terms of segmentation, targeting and positioning.
Identify the risks to your proposal and how you will mitigate them.
Business plans and business cases will require details of how and why your team is uniquely qualified to succeed. Provide sufficient detail.
Summarise the cost-benefits. Readers need to assimilate the critical points from your data quickly. Make sure that numbers, percentages and margins are very easy to understand, and above all, realistic.
How to make it happen
Conclude with a critical path – a timeline – of all stages of approval necessary to proceed.
Lastly... one thing not to do
Don’t start your executive summary by thanking the recipient for the opportunity to submit your document. It wastes time, devalues its impact and looks amateurish. Save your courtesies for a covering letter.