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Creating Compelling Executive Summaries in Seven Easy Steps

Today’s fast-paced business environment is rife with quick digital communication in the form of e-mails, texts, tweets and sound bites. Unfortunately, this has had a negative effect on traditional reading, resulting in a great deal of frustration for anyone trying to get a document-any document-read by individuals in their organization or by prospective clients. However, the executive summary is the one part of any business document that is guaranteed to be read and is therefore your most effective tool for communicating your message. Whenever you have anything at stake, it’s critical that your executive summary delivers the goods.

Let me illustrate my point as to how crucial a well-prepared executive summary can be: Pat was asked to investigate a new replacement program for her company’s PCs. Pat researched the topic thoroughly, wrote and rewrote her report until she was happy with it and presented it to management. And then…nothing, even though she had pointed out there was only a small window of opportunity to take advantage of the initiative.

Curious to know what happened, Pat sought feedback. The comments she heard suggested that none of the managers who had received the report had actually read much of it. Furthermore, even those who seemed to have some idea of what the report was trying to convey didn’t have a complete understanding of the actions required or the benefits. That’s because Pat hadn’t gotten the most critical part of her report right-the executive summary.

At the root of the problem was Pat’s misunderstanding of the purpose of the executive summary. She thought it was simply meant to be an “overview” of the document. It’s not, and this is a common error. Think of it this way: the executive summary is a one-page proposal for the rest of your document-the section of the document that gives your readers all the information they need to understand both your point and your recommended course of action. Sadly, few executive summaries ever deliver the value that both readers and writers want.

Fortunately, Pat was able to resubmit the report. This time, she did her research and identified a seven-step method that would help her create an effective, persuasive executive summary.

The executive summary of your report or proposal isn’t just a summary-it’s your one chance to quickly and concisely get your message across to your readers. It should get their attention, let them know why the document is important to them so they keep reading, act as a guide so they can discern which parts of the report or proposal are relevant to them and, most importantly, it should sell your conclusions. Applying these seven steps to your next executive summary will help you achieve precisely those results:

Step 1: Give Your Summary a Meaningful Title

Don’t call your summary “Executive Summary”. With any proposal or report you would write, let the title indicate what the content is. Pat’s new title was: “Two-Year Computer Replacement Programme”.

Step 2: Give It a Benefit-Oriented Subtitle

Add a subtitle that gives your readers a reason to care about this proposal. They’re more likely to read more of what you wrote if they believe you’re going to deliver something of value. Just the same, if they can identify that they aren’t interested, or aren’t impacted, they can stop reading. Pat used “Saving Money and Increasing Workplace Morale”.

Step 3: Identify Your Objective

Now bring out the key pain point or opportunity that your document addresses and back it up with two or three other points. Don’t worry if you can’t explain everything in just a few bullet points-this is a summary, after all. For the PC replacement program, Pat described the primary change in the company’s purchasing program and two features of the plan:

  • Buy “last year’s model” to save money with no loss of functionality
  • Give 90% of our workers a new PC every two years
  • Limit PC functionality to what’s required by our business

Step 4: Give Recommendations

Now it’s time to provide the casual reader with enough information to understand what you’re recommending or documenting. Pat described how the new process would work: “We currently replace a low percentage of PCs each year with the standard model of our supplier. It would be cheaper to replace half of our PCs each year by buying low-end models in bulk. The software we use runs on the lowest specification PC available, so buying a higher specification is pointless and expensive. Our staff will be happier with the increased stability offered by a more frequent replacement program. After two years, the PCs can be donated to the ‘Computers For Schools’ program for a tax deduction higher than the PCs’ depreciation”.

Step 5: Financial Details and Downsides

After those details, summarise the associated costs or saving. Don’t try to hide them. No one is going to purchase an unpriced item and readers will not appreciate having to dissect your report to find your costs. Pat summed up the financials in one sentence: “Because we are buying low-end PCs that suppliers want to dispose of, replacement costs will drop by $5K in the first year”. If there is a downside to the issue, this is also the time to tell your reader. Telling your reader any bad news up front makes your readers more likely to trust you. Pat had recognised one potential problem: “We will have to buy when stock is available, not whenever we want to”.

Step 6: Status

If there is an urgency associated with the situation, you should address it at this step. Pat made it clear that management needed to act immediately: “We have negotiated agreements with several potential suppliers to take on their end-of-cycle surplus. The new program can be started as soon as a budget is available”.

Step 7: Action

Finally, tell readers what to do next. If you don’t tell your readers what must be done, they may do nothing, which is what happened to Pat the first time through. This time Pat finished the summary with specific direction: “A budget needs to be set for the IT department to purchase the first job lot of PCs if we are to maximise value for this financial year”.

After reading the new summary, management knew:

  • What Pat proposed
  • What the benefits to the business were
  • What the cost or saving was
  • What the urgency level was
  • What to do next

And this time, Pat’s report was acted upon.

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Peter Dillon-Parkin is a business analyst/consultant working with clients in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Peter has written Learning Tree Course 212, “Building an Effective Business Case”, Course 901, “Introduction to Business Intelligence”, Course 219, “Business and Report Writing”, and Course 221, “Writing for the Web”. He also teaches courses in Learning Tree’s business analysis curriculum. Learning Tree International is a leading global provider of truly effective training to management, business and information technology professionals. Since 1974, over 13,000 public and private organizations have trusted Learning Tree to enhance the professional skills of more than 1.9 million employees. For more information, call 1-800-843-8733 or visit