In the business writing courses I have led online and in person this year, one challenge has come up repeatedly: the challenge of writing effective executive summaries.
If you write long documents, you probably need to write executive summaries. To help you write executive summaries that are relevant and useful, I offer the ideas below, excerpted from an article in my monthly e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work. Whether you are in banking, real estate, insurance, manufacturing, law, education, or another type of organization, I hope the questions and answers help you.
What is an executive summary?
An executive summary is a brief section at the beginning of a long report, article, recommendation, or proposal that summarizes the document. It is not background and not an introduction. People who read only the executive summary should get the essence of the document without fine details.
The executive summary of your 4-page, 10-page, or 30-page report is the version you would relate to the VP of your division while taking the elevator to the 30th floor or walking to the parking lot with him or her. It's the core of your document.
What belongs in the executive summary?
As a 30-second or a one-minute version of the entire report, the executive summary should answer the reader's questions in brief.
For a report or an article, the executive summary might answer these questions:
- Briefly, what is this about?
- Why is it important? [or] Why was it undertaken?
- What are the major findings or results?
- What more is to be done? [or] How will these findings be applied?
For a proposal or a recommendation, the summary might answer these questions:
- Briefly, what is this about?
- What do you propose or recommend?
- Why do you propose it?
- What is the next step?
How can I possibly summarize a 30-page report in a 30-second summary?
It can be challenging! But people do it all the time. Here is a 99-word executive summary of an internal audit report written for company executives:
Scope and objective: Internal Audit performed a review of business activities at the Blue River Plant to determine the level of compliance with established policies and procedures.
Findings and recommendations: The audit identified two areas that require improvement: (1) the level of documentation for inventory adjustments, cycle counts, and credit memos; and (2) the use of existing forms and reports that support business processes. The report contains two high-priority and three medium-priority recommendations. (See Table 1, page 2.) [You might list recommendations here or in a table.]
Management response: Management accepted the findings and has developed action plans to implement the recommendations. Internal Audit will track the implementations.
Getting started is hard enough. How can I write a summary before I begin?
You don't need to struggle over the executive summary at the beginning of the writing process. Even though it appears at the beginning of the document, the executive summary is normally written last, when you are certain about the contents of the document.
What are common mistakes writers make in executive summaries?
1. Repeating the content of the executive summary almost verbatim near the beginning of the report. Repetition loses readers.
2. Providing too much background in the summary. Background belongs in a background section or an introduction--not in the summary.
3. Providing too much detail in the summary. Details belong in the body of the document.
4. Using different terms in the executive summary from those in the report. If the summary mentions findings, the report should include findings--not observations. If the summary cites results, the report should describe results--not outcomes.
5. Having a mismatch in content. Whatever the executive summary highlights must be included in the report. Likewise, the report should not contain major points that did not appear in the summary.
6. Including too little or too much in the executive summary. Executive summaries should run from one paragraph to one page, covering only the essential findings, results, or recommendations.
7. Repeating the executive summary almost verbatim in the conclusion. If a report contains a conclusion, it should be a wrap-up that drives home the main points--not an executive summary that highlights them.
Final question: What tips would you add on how to write an executive summary?