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5 Tips To Write Better Executive Summaries

Imagine being in a foreign country. You step on a tour bus, the driver shuts the door as you enter and starts driving.

There is no tour guide on the bus. No one tells you where you’re going or to help you make sense of all the sights you will see along the way.

If a tour guide was on board, his or her job would be to give everyone a formal introduction before the journey begins. He or she would let everyone know where they are heading to and what to expect along the journey. The tour guide gives a sneak peek into the main highlights of the tour. He or she sets the tone.

In our evaluation reports, research papers and technical proposals the “Executive Summary” serves the same purpose. It’s often underestimated by many and sometimes forgotten by a few when writing reports. Nonetheless it is one of the most powerful sections in the entire document. This is what sells your report as it gives the reader the first impression of whether the document is worth reading further.

After reading the executive summary the reader should be thinking “Wow! I want to learn or know more”, and “I have good sense of what this document is about, the main findings and recommendations.”

In other words the executive summary should build enthusiasm as well as inform. The reader can rapidly become acquainted with the document without having to read the entire 70 page document to get the salient points.

Just as the tour guide on the excursion, the opening act should be informative, covering the highlights of the tour but still tantalizing enough so the audience hopefully stays on the bus. In the same fashion, if the reader ‘gets off the bus’ by not reading the rest of the document, it should be because the document (the tour) is less relevant and interesting to them, rather than due to the Executive Summary (the ‘tour guide’s pitch) being a flop.

Once again, after this summary is read, the reader should be able to decide if the content of the whole document is of relevance and of interest to them. Your executive summary should also be written in such a way that it can be a stand-alone and still be fully understood independent from the rest of the document. Interestingly, although the executive summary is found at the beginning of the document it is actually the last thing that the author should write.

It is crucial that the author reads his entire report thoroughly from start to finish before the executive summary is written. During this exercise, key notes such as important facts, findings, course of actions and recommendations are highlighted. These will all form part of the executive summary.

So, how do we put an executive summary together? The following five tips should be of assistance.

1. Who, What, Where, When and Why? Answer these questions briefly in the executive summary to let your reader know what the document is all about. Give the reader a “little history”; What lead you to write this piece of literature? What was your influence or the whole idea behind the text?

2. Highlight the ‘highlights’ of your document. These are the most important areas or takeaways from the main document. Depending on the type of document you are writing (for example a research paper or an evaluation report), you could highlight your method of data gathering and analysis, the overview of the findings followed by a description of each recommendation.

3. Cut, cut and cut! : Give only sufficient information. Many executive summaries end up being too long. Personally, I try to keep the Executive Summary within one page. If text spills over into two pages, I trim the 'fat from the meat' until it fits on one page.

One tip is to adhere to the advice from Kurt Vonnegut, that ''every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action”. Although this statement was written with fiction in mind, it applies to technical documents as well. Every sentence should either reveal new information or should move the document forward. In this way redundant and irrelevant statements should be mercilessly cut from the executive summary.

4. No copy cats. Avoid the temptation to simply copy and paste text from the body of the main document and ‘throw’ it together in the executive summary. Paraphrase the necessary information.

5. Be clear: take note that your audience is seeing your document for the first time hence be clear as possible in your writing. Make sure to state what the acronyms mean. Never assume that the reader should know what you’re talking about. In addition, there is usually more than one type of audience reading your document. This is why it is so important to write as clearly as possible with minimal use of jargon and long sentence construction.

Always keep in mind these points when writing your executive summary and your readers will be well on their way to an exciting journey.

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​​​Ann-Murray Brown

Monitoring, Evaluation and
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