The best executive summaries are like effective elevator pitches. They promote ideas, services or products with logic, appeal, and enthusiasm. They are never knocked-up at the end of writing a document but crafted with care at the beginning.
Care is crucial because an executive summary is the most important section of a report or proposal. It is the one section which is likely to be read by all recipients. Its job is to create impact, engagement, and appeal.
Other sections which may require specialist knowledge, say on technology or finance, may be read only by recipients who have that specialism. Those with general rather than specialist knowledge may skip over those sections.
Writing an executive summary requires high energy from the first word to the last. The first sentence should explain the purpose and benefit of the proposition as an entrée into an appealing, scene setting, first paragraph.
The summary needs to mirror the document in the precise order of the document from beginning to end. It needs to be clear, logical, highly credible, and above all, well-written. It needs to grab the reader’s interest from the first sentence.
That is why an executive summary should be drafted> before starting a document, to set out the structure and the argument, to be later honed and completed after finishing the document.
It is no exaggeration to say that opportunities are won or lost by the quality of written communication. This means that a well-written executive summary can make the difference between losing and winning.
As to length, an executive summary should be as short as possible, ideally no longer than a page, but as long as necessary to convey the argument effectively. If it needs to be longer than one page, so be it.
Always start with the purpose so that the reader knows what to expect within the document.
Detail the problem or opportunity so that readers can understand it at a glance. Leave jargon to one side unless it is necessary to include it.
Analyse the situation non-contentiously and factually to provide a background and context to your document. Include information which may be favourable as well as unfavourable to your proposition.
Given the situation, outline the options you may have considered to address it. Options need to defined, explored and weighed.
Detail your recommendation and your approach to addressing the situation along with an explanation of how you arrived at your recommendation.
If the document relates to a competitive environment, then market analysis, competitor analysis and factors related to the trading environment need to be evaluated.
Your proposition and your approach to the problem or opportunity should be outlined stage by stage. Start with a description of your idea or offering, followed by demand, market, benefits, features, advantages, and payback.
Three questions you need to answer at every stage are: How does your idea compare against competitive ideas? How will you implement it? Where’s the proof that you are likely to succeed?
Anticipate reader questions and answer them within your document. Summarise proof at every stage ensuring that the detail is in the body of the document.
Outline market size, economy, political environment and legislation. Whatever the assumptions are, if relevant to the document, they need to be stated.
Business is about relationships and interrelationships. They need to be stated if relevant.
This section should be a cost-benefit analysis detailing the pros and cons of your case. Use facts, and figures, to get your messages across. Outline the funding requirements, envisaged return on investment and cash flow.
List the benefits in order of importance. These should relate to all considerations from the financial to the strategic.
How to make it happen
Specify the critical path – a timeline – of all stages of approval necessary to proceed.