BlogBusiness WritingHow to Write an Effective Executive Summary

How to Write an Effective Executive Summary

A.J. Ogilvie
Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California
Published Nov 03, 2020

man writing by hand on a piece of paper. Paper in foreground with man in background.

Whether you are an aspiring entrepreneur writing a business plan or a mid-level manager crafting an internal report, it’s likely that you’ve grappled with an executive summary. And even if you haven’t written one, you’ve probably read more than a few.

But what exactly is an executive summary, and more importantly—what is a good one?

Contents:
  1. What Is an Executive Summary?
  2. Why Write an Executive Summary?
  3. Two Key Things You Must Do to Write an Effective Executive Summary
  4. A 3-Step Template for an Effective Executive Summary
  5. Looking Forward
  6. November 17: How to Write an Executive Summary that will Pique Your Potential Reader's Interest

What Is an Executive Summary?

An executive summary is a concise, one-page overview of a business document’s key ideas. Executive summaries are used across industries in a variety of business documents, from legal briefs and product launches to marketing research reports—and that’s just to name a few.

You can use an executive summary in a wide variety of situations, but your goal remains consistent: to provide your reader with a short and engaging story that captures the document’s central ideas and goals.

Why Write an Executive Summary?

There are two key reasons why you should preface any report, business plan, or lengthy document with an executive summary.

1: You need a sales pitch

The executive summary "sells" the reader on the contents of the document before they read the entire thing. People are busy and don’t have time to read an 80-page report. Thus, the reader will either use the executive summary to summarize the report for them, or they will choose to read the entire report because the contents of the summary have intrigued them to read on.

2: You need to highlight the most critical ideas of your report

An executive summary forces you, the writer, to distill the most powerful and critical ideas in the report. The benefit of this distillation process is that you are more likely to improve the document’s overall clarity and focus as a result of writing the executive summary. You’ll know whether the document does in fact accomplish its intentions.

Two Key Things You Must Do to Write an Effective Executive Summary

1: Begin with the reader

One of the challenges of writing an effective executive summary is that you have to make difficult decisions for the reader about what is and what is not important to include. To figure out what to include, you must begin with the reader. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who is the reader?

  2. What is their relationship to this document? Did they ask for this report? Are they investors who are looking to see if your start-up is worth supporting? Is it a consulting client who wants to know how to solve a supply chain problem?

  3. What do they already know about this issue, perspective, or topic? How much informing to you need to do in the executive summary so they can understand the key issues?

  4. What will they do once they’ve read the executive summary? Will they have to make a specific decision? Is there some kind of action they need to take?

2: Tell an Engaging Story

It’s obvious that everyone is busy. But just because you reduce an 80-page report to one page doesn’t mean that the one page will be read.

In order for your reader to know what they need to do, or to persuade them to read the 80-page report, you must tell a compelling story of the key highlights of the document. There are many ways to tell this story, but you want to craft a narrative that has an explicit structure that weaves together a few key elements:

  1. What is the backstory to the report?

  2. What is the problem and what is the solution?

  3. Who are the key players involved?

  4. What are the implications of the various solutions?

Another way of understanding how to turn your executive summary into a story is to view it as a "movie trailer," which is what business writing expert Josh Bernoff suggests. An executive summary should be exciting and provocative.

To Bernoff:

"Every document has sexy stuff—cool conclusions, fascinating statistics, illuminating metaphors, incisive examples."

A great executive summary, as Bernoff notes, provides the reader with the critical, insightful information, or as he calls it, "sexy stuff."

woman typing on a laptop from above

A 3-Step Template for an Effective Executive Summary

The simpler the executive summary, the more likely it is to be read, remembered, and understood. A key way of keeping the summary simple and readable is to use an easy-to-follow template: problem-solution-benefit.

Below I offer an example of this simple template in action using a hypothetic consulting project for a client named Iconix. This hypothetical project required the consultant to analyze the client’s organizational culture and communication. The client wanted to know:

  • Why did it seem like team members were uninformed about key company initiatives and updates?
  • Why did one team not know what other teams were doing?

The consultant then executed the project and provided the client with a 45-page report with detailed findings and recommendations.

Below is an abridged version of what the executive summary would be for this hypothetical project.

Step 1: Problem

Iconix is a rapidly growing firm operating at the intersection of AI and engineering. As the client has noted, one key challenge of rapid growth is maintaining a coherent company culture where all team members are informed and aligned around the company’s goals. We were tasked with figuring out why Iconix team members weren’t aware of company news or key initiatives, as well as determining why the various units were not aware of what other units were doing.

We’ve identified two key problems as a result of conducting 50 interviews and collecting 300 surveys over the past six months:

  1. Very few team members feel compelled to read any of the internal communications. Fewer than 10% of team members read any of the internal communications sent out by management. One team member said, "I don’t read the e-mails because they are usually too long or just not relevant to anything I’m doing."

  2. Few team members see any value in knowing what other teams are doing. Only 7% said that they felt it was important that they knew what other teams were doing. A software engineer noted, "I don’t see how knowing that marketing is rolling out a new social media campaign helps me in any way."

Step 2: Solution

We have developed three solutions to address the aforementioned problems.

First, Iconix should transform its internal communications strategy.  We believe this strategy could be more user-centric; specifically, we think Iconix should adopt tools like Blink, Energage, and Espresa which increase stakeholder engagement through social media-like platforms.

Second, Iconix should develop "success stories" that publicize how cross-functional teams have worked together, and highlight the positive impact of these collaborations.

Lastly, we think that management could increase the effectiveness of internal communication in two ways:

  1. Make more frequent and explicit endorsements of internal communication and

  2. Provide more opportunities for two-way communications between leadership and team members.

Step 3: Benefits

What would Iconix look like if they implemented these solutions? The most important result is what we call a "more than the sum of its parts" benefit, or "1+1=3." It’s obvious that a company’s culture is a critical factor in its success: culture shapes growth and performance in significant ways. Yet creating a positive company culture isn’t easy, and it doesn’t mean breaking culture into different parts to try to understand them. There is an alchemy to culture, and we believe that integrating these solutions will produce a new chemistry for Iconix.

man and woman shake hands over some papers

Looking Forward

As we have seen, an effective executive summary must be reader-centric and tell a compelling story. What this sample executive summary does is tell an engaging story of Iconix’s growth, and how that growth has brought about communication and culture issues.

The executive summary identifies key problems, offers solutions to those problems, and then articulates the benefits of those solutions; these three elements help the client understand what the report says and what kinds of action the client could take. And in doing so—in meeting the needs of the client (the reader)—the executive summary fulfills its purpose in a substantive, engaging way.


November 17: How to Write an Executive Summary that will Pique Your Potential Reader's Interest

Executive summaries are a critical part of any business report, and they seem perhaps even more important in today’s increasingly time-strapped workplace.

ProWritingAid Webinar

And while most people see a good executive summary as a relatively concise overview of a report's main ideas, the reality is that a great executive summary should be much more—specifically, it should be a compelling story of your ideas.

In this webinar, we discuss how you can transform your executive summary into a powerful narrative that moves your reader.

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A.J. Ogilvie
Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

A.J. Ogilvie, PhD, is a professor of business communication at the University of Southern California. He has taught business communication, consulting, and writing courses for over ten years, and has published research on the theories of teaching, learning and communication.

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