If you write long documents, you probably need to write executive summaries, whether you are in banking, real estate, insurance, manufacturing, law, education, or another type of organization. The questions and answers below will help you ensure your executive summaries are relevant and useful.
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.
The abundance of books, as well as various professional speakers, training course and seminars agree that the standard length should generally be somewhere between five and ten percent of the length of the original report.
When putting together an executive summary, you need to be keenly aware of your audience and understand who it is that you are addressing. The language you will use for a group of financiers will differ significantly from when writing for a group of computer programmers or engineers.
This does not only relate to which words you use but also affects the content and depth of explanation. Keep in mind that this is a summary, and people will read it in order to easily and quickly grasp the main points.
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 following questions might be answered:
- 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?
A more general outline you can use as a rule of thumb might look like this:
- methods of analyzing the problem
- results of analysis
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. 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.
Short One-Page Executive Summary With Writing Tips
Here is a fictional, one-page summary of a report on the participation in the newly-implemented recycling program by the city of Bloomington, IN:
Real Life Example # 1
This is an Executive Summary of the Global Partnership for Education’s Results Report 2015-2016.
Real Life Example # 2
This is an executive summary of a 2019 Report on Drug Use in the Americas from the Organisation of American States’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission.
Further reading: Structuring Procedure and Methodology in Business Reports