How to write a killer executive summary

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary in a business report or tender response is very different to an “executive summary” in other types of reports. To write the killer executive summary you must know who the report is for, know why the report was needed and be able to write clearly and logically.

An executive summary in a business document is not a summary, it is not an abstract or a précis of what comes after. It is not a mini version of the report. Unlike academic, technical or scientific reports, it really is aimed at being read by an executive. This is important.

Who is the audience?

An executive summary in a business document is written for an “executive”. The “executive” simply means the decision-maker. Business reports are written to help decision-makers make informed decisions. It should spell out the best decision and why it should be taken.

Imagine a decision-maker who is faced with a series of options to choose. If the decision-maker is competent they will want to make a decision taking into account costs and risks and perhaps social, environmental and safety factors.

When the costs, risks and other factors are known the decision is easy. If the costs and risks are not known the decision is harder and requires either a best guess or more information being made available. In large organisations reports are commissioned to support decisions or to propose courses of action.

What is the purpose?

When the report arrives the decision-makers don’t need to know everything that was done, they need to know only a few things: what option do they choose or what course of action do they take and how is it justified? That is what an executive summary should tell them.

An exec. summary clearly spells out recommendations with information that justifies them. It only includes information that supports the recommendations and decision. The executive reader does not need to read the whole report (although they may want to read details critical to the decision). The body of the report will have been assessed and reviewed by organisational experts.

If a business report is a proposal it will present recommendations detailing benefits and how risks will be minimised. It needs to convince the decision-makers to make a favourable decision.

When to write the executive summary?

When do you write an executive summary? If you write it at the end of the report writing, it indicates indecision and the report is unlikely to have a clear result. Proposals or reports in a business context support and justify decisions, so, in theory, the executive summary should be  written almost at the start of the report drafting to provide the structure of the document’s argument.

In reality, the executive summary is written early and is modified and refined during the report’s development. However, it is not going to change greatly in intent if it is changed in substance.

How to write an executive summary?

All the rules of good writing apply but most important of all is to make everything as clear as possible. Clarity comes from avoiding jargon, avoiding excess detail and from a strong structure. Structure comes from using sub-headings, clear paragraphs, short sentences and most of all good logic.

To write the killer executive summary you must remember it is about helping someone to make a confident and supportable decision.