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.
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.
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?
I. Writing an Executive Summary
Read the Entire Document
This may go without saying, but it is critically important that you read your entire research study thoroughly from start to finish before beginning to write the executive summary. Take notes as you go along, highlighting important statements of fact, key findings, and recommended courses of action. This will better prepare you for how to organize and summarize your study. Remember this is not a brief abstract of 300 words or less but, essentially, a mini-paper of your paper, with a focus on recommendations.
Isolate the Major Points Within the Original Document
Choose which parts of the document are the most important to those who will read it. These points must be included within the executive summary in order to provide a thorough and complete explanation of what the document is trying to convey.
Separate the Main Sections
Closely examine each section of the original document and discern the main differences in each. After you have a firm understanding about what each section offers in respect to the other sections, write a few sentences for each section describing the main ideas.Although the format may vary, the main sections of an executive summary likely will include the following:
- The opening statement, brief background information,
- The purpose of research study,
- Method of data gathering and analysis,
- Overview of findings, and,
- A description of each recommendation, accompanied by a justification. Note that the recommendations are sometimes quoted verbatim from the research study.
Combine the Information
Use the information gathered to combine them into an executive summary that is no longer than 10% of the original document. Be concise! The purpose is to provide a brief explanation of the entire document with a focus on the recommendations that have emerged from your research. How you word this will likely differ depending on your audience and what they care most about. If necessary, selectively incorporate bullet points for emphasis and brevity.
Re-read the Executive Summary
After you've completed your executive summary, let it sit for a while before coming back to re-read it. Check to make sure that the summary will make sense as a separate document from the full research study. By taking some time before re-reading it, you allow yourself to see the summary with unbiased eyes.
II. Common Mistakes to Avoid
Length of the Executive Summary
As a general rule, the correct length of an executive summary is that it meets the criteria of no more pages than 10% of the number of pages in the original document, with an upper limit of no more than ten pages. This requirement keeps the document short enough to be read by your audience, but long enough to allow it to be a complete, stand-alone synopsis.
Cutting and Pasting
With the exception of specific recommendations made in the study, do not simply cut and paste whole sections of the original document into the executive summary. You should paraphrase information from the longer document. Avoid taking up space with excessive subtitles and lists, unless they are absolutely necessary for the reader to have a complete understanding of the original document.
Consider the Audience
Although unlikely to be required by your professor, there is the possibility that more than one executive summary will have to be written for a given document [e.g., one for policy-makers, one for private industry, one for philanthropists]. This may only necessitate the rewriting of the conclusion, but it could require rewriting the entire summary in order to fit the needs of the reader. If necessary, be sure to consider the types of audiences who may benefit from your study and make adjustments accordingly.
Clarity in Writing
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is related to the clarity of your executive summary. Always note that your audience [or audiences] are likely seeing your research study for the first time. The best way to avoid a disorganized or cluttered executive summary is to write it after the study is completed. Always follow the same strategies for proofreading that you would for any research paper.
Use Strong and Positive Language
Don’t weaken your executive summary with passive, imprecise language. The executive summary is a stand-alone document intended to convince the reader to make a decision concerning whether to implement the recommendations you make. Once convinced, it is assumed that the full document will provide the details needed to implement the recommendations. Although you should resist the tempation to pad your summary with pleas or biased statements, do pay particular attention to ensuring that a sense of urgency is created in the implications, recommendations, and conclusions presented in the executive summary. Be sure to target readers who are likely to implement the recommendations.
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