How to write an executive summary

Like anything you write, think about the users first. An executive summary usually has three types of users:

1. Busy executives
They want a speedy understanding of your paper or report. If they like your recommendations or ideas they may delegate someone else to read the detail. If they don’t like it, your paper may go no further.

2. A selective reader
These readers will read your summary to get the gist of your ideas or findings, skim read the report and then read sections that interest them in more detail.

3. A detailed reader
They may read your summary to build a framework for the ideas that will follow so they can grasp the meaning more readily.

So, how do you meet the needs of these different types of readers? The most important readers to satisfy are those that may not read the rest of your paper. If you meet their needs well you will likely meet the needs of other types of readers as well.

Highlight the benefits of your ideas and how they meet the reader’s needs.
The executive summary needs to ‘sell’ the rest of the paper, not describe it.

Maximise meaning, minimise reading.
Only include material in the summary that is important in telling the story. Every word must count. Think – “what is it that I’m happy for my readers to understand, even if they don’t understand anything else.” Leave detail to the report.

Use point a point first structure.
Tell the reader what you have found, or the position you are wanting to take, in the first few lines. Engage them immediately by starting with a compelling statement about the solution or the idea you wish to implement.

Be specific, don’t talk in generalities.
Talk about concrete ideas and actions, not vague concepts.

Keep your language strong and positive.
Use simple sentences and avoid jargon.

The executive summary should work well with the table of contents, so that if a reader finds something interesting in the summary they can easily find a more complete discussion of the matter in the body of the document.

Use as many words as it takes to achieve your objectives, and no more. Don’t pad it out if that is not required. Don’t artificially truncate if that would be misleading. However, as a general rule of thumb, write no more than a page for documents up to 50 pages, nor more than 2 pages for documents from 50 – 150 pages, and no more than 5 pages for anything bigger than that. (For extensive documents it may be more appropriate to have an executive summary for each chapter rather than one covering the entire document.)

The most important sentence may not be in the executive summary – it is the sentence that introduces the report in your email or covering letter. Your summary may not get read if this sentence is not well crafted.