First impressions count for a lot. When people read a substantial document such as a report or business case, one of the first things they will see is the executive summary. It is no exaggeration to say that the effectiveness of this can determine the success, or otherwise, of the document.
There are a few guidelines to keep in mind when writing an executive summary. If you do so, the writing of the executive summary will be easier. The guidelines apply to whether it is for a report, briefing paper or business case.
Although the executive summary goes at the beginning of the document, after the title page, it needs to be written when you have completed the main body. In doing it this way, you have clarified the purpose of your document and the behaviours you wish your reader to follow up on.
Once the document is completed, you need to ask yourself two key questions:
- Who is the intended reader of your executive summary?
- What part of the whole document do they really need to know?
The reader of the summary may be quite different to the intended reader of the whole document. It may be read by some instead of reading the whole document. Some may read it to see if they need to read the rest, others may use it to decide if the whole document is relevant to them. Despite the various reasons people will read the summary, you must keep in mind your intended reader and their needs.
Once you have identified your intended reader, you need to decide what it is from the whole document you want them to know or do. If you were to have a quick conversation with the reader, what points would you tell them about and what would you have them do.
Try to get your key points down to a few bullet points. A Useful tool is a Mind Map. This helps you organise your thoughts and focus on the important ones.
What are the restrictions in writing a summary within your business? Do you need to use a particular structure or is there a limited word count? Make sure you know what is required. Table formats are often a good idea, as they are easy to read and help you to be succinct.
The language in an executive summary needs to be clear and concise, with no jargon or slang. Use plain English and an appropriate level of formality. Keep your paragraphs brief, with only one topic in each. Use short sentences and lots of white space. You want the summary to be readable.
There are three parts to your summary: the introduction, main body and conclusion.
- The introduction explains what the paper is about, including any action that needs to be taken. It doesn’t need to be more than two or three sentences.
- The main body summarises the key findings and recommendations of the whole document. It needs to focus on the relevant and interesting aspects of the document.
- The conclusion is the action you require and the ‘take away’ message of the document.
Your executive summary should be able to stand alone from the rest of the document. It can be helpful to get someone else to read it that doesn’t know much about the subject. A good executive summary should be no longer than a page, shorter if possible.
Once you have finished, check your summary against your Mind Map to ensure all points are covered. Also read it out aloud to yourself to hear the flow of it and the language you have used. Is it appropriate?
There are business writing courses that can help you. If you write executive summaries, ensure the course you are looking at includes a section on this aspect. Also, one that teaches Mind Mapping is a good idea.
Remember your intended readership and focus on them. Others may read your summary and find it helpful. Your intended reader, however, relies on it.