We’re all familiar with the concept of the elevator pitch – a brief and compelling description of an idea or product that’s designed to spark your listener’s interest.
An executive summary is the written equivalent of that. Found at the beginning of a document, an executive summary is a brief overview containing the key findings and takeaways of a report, piece of analysis or business plan, along with suggestions for future actions.
How to Write An Effective Executive Summary
So, why are executive summaries important? Consider for a moment that you’re a time-pressed researcher, business person or funder. If someone were to ask you to read a 20-page report, you would want to know it’s worth your time and effort.
That’s precisely what an executive summary does – it communicates the most important parts of your report, giving the reader a clear idea of what to expect. If they’re interested in the points you make in your executive summary, they’re more likely to read your report.
It’s clear, therefore, that an executive summary is one of the most important parts of your report. But, where do you start when it comes to writing an effective executive summary? Follow these quick tips to help make your summary as strong as possible.
Write your executive summary last
Although your summary will be the first thing your readers will see, you should leave the task of writing it until the very end. By then you’ll have a clear overview of what’s included in your report, and you can use the structure of your report to build your summary.
Try an online summarizing tool
AI-driven text summarizers can be a useful starting point for report writers. This emerging technology summarizes reports, articles and business documents, highlighting key points to provide a useful foundation for drafting a strong and effective executive summary.
Check if there’s a required structure
An executive summary can be written for all sorts of long documents, including marketing reports and business plans. Because of this, there isn’t a set structure for writers to follow – often it will depend on your target audience, the structure of your report and the purpose of it.
If you’re submitting your report to a particular business, you should first check with them whether there’s a required structure to follow.
If not, it’s best to structure your executive summary following the same structure of your report. You can use sub-headings to break the sections up, for instance ‘Report introduction’, ‘Research methods’, ‘Conclusion’ and ‘Recommendations’.
The first line of your executive summary should draw your reader in instantly. You might want to outline the scope of the report or the problem you’re trying to solve. For example, it could be that your topic has been in the news recently, or your business has a particular issue you want to focus on.
A good example of a strong, focused opening is this first sentence from a marketing report’s executive summary:
‘This report was commissioned to examine why the sales volume of Choice Chocolate has dropped over the past two years since its peak in 1998 and to recommend ways of increasing the volume.’
By succinctly addressing the purpose and goals of the report, the summary draws in those with an interest in this area. It also uses plain language to make sure it’s clear and as easy to read as possible.
Most academic websites and online business resources agree that the length of your executive summary should be between 5-10% of your overall report. So, if your document is 5,000 words long, you would be looking at writing an executive summary that’s between 250 and 500 words.
Use this as a ballpark figure rather than a goal: for instance, if you can convey the key points of your report in fewer words, that’s even better for the reader.
Use appropriate language for your audience
All executive summaries should have a professional tone, although you might need to vary the language based on your target audience.
For instance, if you’re addressing a group of financiers, you might want to use different language and stick to topline findings; however, if your intended audience is your peers in the marketing field, you might want to delve into the subject area a little deeper or use more technical language.
Stick to the information found in your report
It sounds obvious, but your executive summary should only contain information that can be found in your report. As tempting as it might be, don’t use this section as an excuse to shoehorn in extra research or findings.
Make sure your executive summary can stand on its own
That means it should make sense on its own, away from your full report. Consider that the executive summary may be the only part of the report your target audience reads, so it has to have a solid structure and be easy to understand.
Use bullet points to convey key points
Bullet points are an effective way to highlight your key points and to ensure they don’t get lost in a sea of text.
The placement of your bullet points is entirely dependent on your report, but they often work well in the final section of your executive summary – the part where you want to clarify the action needed from the person reading the report.
By drawing attention to your recommended actions, you’re making it easier for your audience to consider your suggestions. You’ll also be framing yourself as a solutions-driven candidate with a clear plan!