Tips for Executive Summaries that Flow

Written by Kimberly MacArthur Graham on April 27, 2015

As part of my technical proposal writing and one-voice work, I frequently need to write executive summaries. They are very short – typically ranging from a single paragraph to a few pages – but they can be fearsome.  Different from a document’s cover letter, introduction, or conclusion, an executive summary is a stand-alone piece that needs to convey the essence of the entire report. It is often the only part of a report that a decision-maker will read, so it needs to be clear, concise, and complete.

Plenty of competent writers get hung up on the executive summary, worried about “fitting it all in.” Here are a few tips for making it easier on the writer and the reader.

First is Last. | Even though an executive summary appears first in a document, it needs to be written last. Your job is to convey the document’s most important points, and you can do that only after you’ve written / edited / read the whole thing.

Know your Audience. | Remember that the purpose of the summary is to give the (busy executive) reader the gist of a report in short order– without distractions or “fluff.” And remember, too, that the salient points for an executive may not be the same as for a technical reviewer.  Leave out background, details, case studies, illustrations, tables, charts, etc.  Your audience’s time and interests should dictate what you use and what you keep to the full report.

Agree to . . . Agree. | The summary should never conflict with the document it summarizes. If you update one, make sure to change the other accordingly. Be careful that economical wording or slimmed-down information does not change the meaning of what is presented, even by its absence.

Use your Outside Voice.  | In, uh summary:  an executive summary is not merely a condensed or “edited-down” version of a document. It has a purpose, character, audience, and flow of its own, and should be created independently from the rest of a document. Because of this, it may make sense to bring in an outside voice (writer). Often, a client will have us write an executive summary of a document they’ve hired us to edit as a way to determine whether or not the original report is clear and logical.

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