Five tips for creating a compelling executive summary

Stack of documentsWriting the executive summary is generally the most important and therefore daunting task in creating any document. As the name suggests, this section must target the decision makers—and it may well be the only part of the document they read. Therefore it is vital that it provide a concise, accurate and compelling summary of everything that follows.

Of course, summarising an entire report, business proposal or submission in two pages (and an executive summary generally shouldn’t be any longer than two pages) is never an easy task. Here are a few tips to help you.

Always write the executive summary last. Even if you have planned out the entire document, the act of writing it will help you to arrange your ideas and crystallise your thinking. This will be invaluable when you come to writing that final, all-important synopsis. Once you have drafted the body of your document, review each section and note the key points to be included in the executive summary.

Your executive summary should follow a basic logic that offers the reader an understanding of the issue, and why the proposed course of action is being recommended. You can modify the following generic structure to suit your specific requirements:

  1. Background
  2. Purpose of the report/problem to be solved
  3. Methodology (how you decided on the recommendations)
  4. Recommendations
  5. Benefits
  6. Implementation
  7. Costs (financial or otherwise)

Remember also that the audience for the executive summary is not necessarily the same as for the rest of your document. The decision maker is often someone in a management role, not a subject matter expert, so keep the technical detail for the main body. The executive summary should be clear, concise and written in plain English.

Five helpful points to remember are:

  • Be concise (no more than two pages).
  • Provide a context for the document – What is the background and what problem or need is it intended to address?
  • Explain what the recommendations are, how they were reached and the likely benefits and implications.
  • Don’t just cut and paste chunks of text from the body of the document. The executive summary is a distillation of the main document, not a series of excerpts.
  • Remember your audience. Avoid jargon or technical terminology.

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