Write Better Executive Summaries

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.

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.

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If you need someone to edit or proofread your reports, please contact my partner, Scribendi. I don't provide editorial services, but Scribendi is fast and professional. 

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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?

Lynn
Syntax Training

49 COMMENTS

  1. If you are lucky enough to be writing mainly for one executive, know your executive and what they want to see.

    Have someone who cares a lot less than you write the summary – one thing I see hurting summaries is having people (including me!) with a lot invested in the writing being unable to let even one little beloved detail go. A little distance can give a lot of perspective.

  2. The executive summary is not the table of contents but you still might put the page number next to each of your main points. A CEO might want to go directly to the recommendations, for example.

  3. I advise people to put what matters most into their executive summaries. Writers should highlight only the most interesting, startling, unique or important points in the paper. For example, if a report has 10 findings, don’t pop them all into the executive summary in a bland list. Identify the top three findings and hit them hard in the executive summary. This way, the writer most likely will compel the reader to read on. If a reader doesn’t read the whole report, he or she at least gets the major points.

  4. Hi, Diane. Thanks for your excellent suggestion.

    I agree that important points belong in the executive summary. I can think of situations, though, where interesting, startling, or unique points might pull the summary in an unusual direction.

    I like your closing sentence. We definitely want the reader to get the major points from our executive summary.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Lynn

  5. Hi Lynn, thanks for the article. it is of great help. if i have to evaluate an executive summaries or commentaries, what could be the major parameters which can be used for evaluation?

  6. Hello, S Sunil Kumar. Your question sounds like one a professor would ask.

    I would evaluate an executive summary the same way I would evaluate any type of business writing. For example, I would ask:

    It is clear? It is concise? Does it meet the readers’ needs?

    Lynn

  7. Jan,

    The one topic that I have read consistently on various websites, is that the Executive Summary should never contain numbers or figures for the desired budget. What I read is that the CEO or potential investor sees that number and it sticks in their minds throughout the presentation; sometimes a decision has already been formed before the presentation has been completed, based on the dollar figure, and not on the positive qualities and potentials of what is being proposed. Hope this helps.

    Maria

  8. Hi Jan,

    The key to what doesn’t belong is this: The executive summary is a SUMMARY. Don’t include anything that doesn’t help to summarize the document.

    Please review the common mistakes in my article above. They include a couple of examples of things that do not belong in executive summaries.

    Lynn

  9. Hi Maria,

    Thank you for responding to Jan.

    You are correct that in a persuasive document, you may decide not to include a dollar amount in the executive summary. The reasoning, as you suggest, is that the reader needs to appreciate what the dollars will create or buy before knowing the exact dollar amount.

    Yet it depends on the reader and the purpose of the document. Some readers want to know at the beginning whether the request is for $20,000 or $200,000. And in some documents, the purpose is not to persuade but to inform. For example, the purpose might be to explain to the reader how the $200,000–which has already been approved–will be spent.

    Because of the many documents that may include an executive summary, I would not suggest that the summary should NEVER contain numbers for the desired budget. It depends.

    Thanks again for commenting.
    Lynn

  10. Suppose you are a manager at a Construction Company and you have completed a project regarding the construction of a bridge. Write one page report to the CEO of your company regarding the success of the project.

  11. Moon, a well-written report should answer the reader’s questions, such as:

    –What’s this about?
    –Is the project complete?
    –Was it on time?
    –Was it on budget?
    –Does it meet all the requirements of the contract?
    –Has it passed all inspections?
    –Is there follow-up to be done?
    –What else do I need to know about the project?

    You would probably use headings, paragraphs, and bullet points to convey the information.

    Good luck.

    Lynn

  12. I thought this information was very valuable, I am writing a research paper for Cal Poly Pomona and this is something that most people are not taught until grad school or running a business. However it is proving to be an essential part of a professional and educational career.

  13. Please send some useful hints how best to review report .Equally best possible way to write official letters

  14. The best way to review a report is to assess whether it achieves its goal. If it’s a site report on a manufacturer, does it report on the essential aspects of the site’s efficiency and productivity? If it’s a business trip report, does it share only the relevant information about the trip? Does the report supply the information a reader would want–without providing unnecessary details?

    The best way to write official letters is to write them so people can understand them and accept their conclusions. If I had to write official letters on the job, I would ask for examples.

    Lynn

  15. Thanks all of you.This I am come cross of paramount importance because I am doing my internship and an executive summary is one of the gap that i have to fill so as to provide a full report.I am from BURUNDI-BUJUMBURA

  16. Hi Kim,

    I don’t have such a template. If you can’t find one that is already developed, think about the questions your executive summary needs to answer. You can find two bulleted examples in the article above.

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  17. Short, sharp and informative. I also found contributions in the comments section useful. I think we need to pay a little more attention to articulating our ‘elevator speech’. Many times we are caught up in the projects that we only provide executive summaries as after-thoughts whereas they are probably the only aspects that senior leadership will ever read fully.

  18. Hi Lynn,
    I enjoyed reading your article.. wondered if you have a a view on the inclusion of highlevel figures in a Sales proposal i.e. Request For Proposal.
    Like a similar example above, I believe it depends if a beneficial example can be offered.
    This might suggest the investment of “X” will increase revenue by “Y” and improve customer satisfaction by “Z”.
    Some of my colleagues suggest you should never include such an investment summary as it might draw detrimental conclusions too early, such as being too costly.
    I’d welcome your view.

  19. Hi Barry,

    Here’s what I said on the subject in a comment above:

    “You are correct that in a persuasive document, you may decide not to include a dollar amount in the executive summary. The reasoning, as you suggest, is that the reader needs to appreciate what the dollars will create or buy before knowing the exact dollar amount.”

    I agree with you that it depends whether an example would be beneficial.

    Another solution might be–if truthful–to say that the proposal offers three solutions at price points ranging from X to Y. How does that sound?

    Lynn

  20. Hey Lynn,
    I’m in a group project for a second year business course and i’m doing the executive summary on a report. We’re supposed to make recommendations for a fictitious Family business who wants to make wine and I don’t know what format to use and please can you elaborate on your 7th common mistake please?

  21. Hi Tokoni,

    The format you choose for the executive summary depends on the content of the report. So the report has to be done before you can summarize it.

    If the report contains six recommendations for the fictitious family, your summary might introduce and list those recommendations, and then the report would flesh them out.

    Regarding Point 7, the final summary would, of course, not list the recommendations again. It would probably summarize the need for them.

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  22. Hi Lynn,

    In an executive summary, is it ever appropriate to cite the page number (or location) of a particular point, term, etc. from the source document? And if so, what is a good way to do that?

    The purpose being that if the reader of the exec summary wanted more information about a point, they would know where to go in the source document to find it.

  23. Fish, it would be fine to include (page 6) just a few page numbers in the way I just showed. If you felt you needed many such citations, a table of contents would make more sense.

    I apologize for the delay in responding. I am traveling in Central America and staying away from the Internet.

    Lynn

  24. Thanks Lynn, this is one of the better articles I’ve come across in my research about writing an Executive Summary.Good suggestions in the comments also.One “trick” I sometimes use with our staff is “How would you explain this to your grandma. She loves you, but not enough to endure five or ten minutes of confusing and boring jargon.”

  25. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for the compliment. I like the grandma suggestion. I would not take it too far though because the audience for the executive summary may be experts. Rather than simplicity, the key may be a focus on the essential point or points.

    Lynn

  26. Thanks for the information about How to write and prepare an executive summary and it was very relevant to what I was looking for. at first i did know i thought that an executive summary is like a paragraph or some many sentences one should write thank you so much.

  27. mam!!! its great . to have this information . but what should we do in a executive summary for a business report where we already received a template for the whole document … it would be grateful if u reply me

  28. Silpa, I’m not sure I understand your question yet. If the template includes a place for an executive summary, include it. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure how you might handle it. Perhaps another term is used to describe the section, maybe just “summary”?

    Lynn

  29. All this talk telling people who to write something, and yet you don’t even provide one example document? That’s not very good teaching practice.

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