Being asked to write an executive summary, whether for a policy paper, pamphlet, briefing paper or report, may be a daunting prospect if you’ve never done it before.
However, ask a few questions, and keep a few simple rules in your mind and it becomes much more straightforward. This page sets out the questions to ask, whether of yourself or someone else, and a few warnings and conventions to bear in mind.
Executive Summary Content
Two key questions you need to ask before you start
- Who is the intended audience of my executive summary?
- Which of the contents of the paper that I am summarising do they really need to know?
These questions are important because they tell you what you need to include in the executive summary, so let’s unpack them a little:
The Intended Audience
As with all writing projects it is important to know your audience . The intended audience for an executive summary may be quite different from the intended audience for the longer document, whether it’s a policy paper, report, or something else.
The executive summary serves several possible purposes.
People may read the executive summary to find out if they need to read the full report. This group may include people within the organisation and outside, but the report is likely to touch on what they do every day. They will often be subject experts; they just need to know if there is anything new that they should read. This group will be looking for a broad summary of the contents of the wider paper.
People may want to find out if they’d find the full report interesting and relevant. even if not strictly essential. Again, this group is likely to be subject experts, but may also include analysts searching for a particular ‘angle’ on the subject.
This group will also welcome a straightforward summary of the contents.
They may read the executive summary instead of the full report. It’s this group that you really need to worry about, because they’re likely to include the Board or executive team of your organisation, as well as journalists. What goes into the executive summary, therefore, is the message that they’re going to take away, that may well be spread more widely. For these people, the executive summary is their window onto the subject and it needs to be transparent, not opaque, if they are to understand it.
Think about your intended audience: who do you want to read your executive summary and why?
Don’t worry about other people who might read it; this is your intended audience. the people to whom you or your immediate line manager are going to send the summary. If the summary is for publication, which groups do you most want to read it?
What Does Your Intended Audience Need to Know?
Once you have identified your intended audience, you can then think about what they need to know or do as a result of reading your paper. This can be split into two parts:
First categorise the document by whether it needs action or is for information only. This will determine the language that you use.
Next, you need to identify what, when they have finished reading, are the key messages that you want your audience to have in their heads.
Information and concepts that they did not have before.
A good way to think about the key content is to imagine meeting your boss or CEO in the car park or at the coffee machine. What three key points about your document would you want to tell them?
Work on reducing your key messages down to three, or at the most, five bullet points of one or two sentences. Working on them before you start writing will mean that they are absolutely clear in your head as you write.
Writing your Executive Summary
Some organisations have very clear structures that are used for documents like executive summaries and others are more open.
Before you start, check whether you need to work within a specific structure or not. For example, if you are writing a summary of an academic report for submission, you may have a word count restriction, or need to remain within one side of paper.
When you are writing your executive summary, you should keep your intended audience in mind at all times and write it for them.
If your audience includes your boss or Chief Executive think: how much do they already know, and how much do you need to explain?
If your audience includes journalists, you probably need to explain everything. If it’s simply as a summary of a paper because you have to publish one, then you simply need to summarise the paper.
If you find yourself getting bogged down in the detail at this stage, it’s a good idea to talk to someone else about what to include.
The language you use needs to be fairly formal, whether or not the summary is intended for publication. If in doubt, check out our page: Formal and Informal Writing .
Broadly, an executive summary, as you might expect, summarises the main points of the underlying paper, and draws out the key points. It usually has three sections: introduction, main body and conclusion.
The introduction sets the scene, and explains what the paper is about, including what action needs to be taken as a result. It doesn’t need to be more than one or two sentences. For an internal paper, you might write:
This paper explains the findings of the research about [subject] and its relevance to the organisation. It notes five key findings, and makes three recommendations for action within the organisation. You are asked to take note of these, and decide whether the recommendations should be implemented.
For an executive summary of a published paper, it is not unusual for the first paragraph to be more attention-grabbing.
For example, from a recently-published report about green energy and the internet:
For the estimated 2.5 billion people around the world who are connected to the internet, it is impossible to imagine life without it.
The internet has rewoven the fabric of our daily lives – how we communicate with each other, work and entertain ourselves – and become a foundation of the global economy.
[Source: Greenpeace, Clicking Clean ].
This example still sets the scene: the importance of the internet, but the idea here is to keep people reading, not just provide information. Again, it’s all about your audience and what they need or want.
The main body of the text outlines the key findings and/or recommendations from the report or paper to which this is the summary. The main section needs to focus on the interesting and most relevant bits of the report.
Most importantly, the main section of the executive summary needs to stand alone without the reader having to refer to the main body of the report or policy paper. This is worth checking by getting someone who doesn’t know much about the subject to read it over for you.
Finally, you need a conclusion. which outlines the take-home messages or action needed from the person reading the report. Bullet points are a useful form to highlight the key points, and this is where your three to five messages come in.
Once you’ve finished, check it against our checklist to make sure that you’ve covered everything.
Checklist for writing an executive summary
- Have you kept in mind the audience at all times?
- Have you addressed it to them?
- Have you met any word count or structural requirements?
- Have you clearly outlined the key messages and any action needed as a result?
- Does the executive summary make sense by itself, without the report attached?
Final Words of Warning
An executive summary cannot be all things to all people. You only have a few hundred words. You need to focus firmly on your intended audience and their needs. Other people may find it useful; your intended audience relies on it.
Understand that an executive summary is a short review of a business document. “Short” and “review” are key words here. The executive summary is not going to be comprehensive in any way, nor will it be a substitute for the original document. An executive summary should never be longer than 10% of the original document. Shoot to have it somewhere between 5% and 10%.
- An executive summary is different from an abstract. An abstract gives the reader overview and orientation, while an executive summary gives the reader more of a summary. Abstracts are more commonly written in academia, while executive summaries are used more for business purposes.
Can you please put wikiHow on the whitelist for your ad blocker? wikiHow relies on ad money to give you our free how-to guides. Learn how .
Make sure it adheres to certain stylistic and structural guidelines. Most authoritative sources who write executive summaries agree that certain stylistic and structural guidelines should apply. These include:
- Paragraphs should be short and concise.
- Executive summaries should make sense even if you haven’t read the original report.
- Executive summaries should be written in language that is appropriate for the target audience.
Define the problem. An executive summary needs to clearly define a problem, whether it’s supply-chain management or marketing campaigns overseas. Executive summaries, especially, need clear definitions of problems because the documents that they are based on, Requests For Proposals (RFP), are often written by technical people with a poor grasp of conceptual issues. Make sure the problem is defined in clear, understandable terms.
Provide a solution. A problem is always in need of a solution. In order to deliver a claim statement of purpose (and a reason to fund the venture), you need to present your solution so that it effectively tackles the problem. If your problem isn’t clearly written, your solution is less likely to make sense.
Use graphics, bullet points, and headings if the document is easier to skim that way. An executive summary is not an essay; it doesn’t need to be long blocks of text. If they enhance understanding or make the summary more skimmable. it’s okay to use:
- Graphics. A well-placed graphic illustrating the precise nature of the client’s problem could drive home the point of the summary. Stimulating the visual sense is often just as effective as their analytical sense.
- Bullets. Long lists of information can be broken down into more digestible bullets.
- Headings. Organize the themes of the summary, if necessary, by heading. This will help orient the reader as they dive into the summary.
Keep the writing fresh and jargon-free. Jargon is the enemy of understanding. It just so happens to be popular in the business world. Words like “interface,” “leverage,” “core competency,” and “burning platform” are all words that you should strive to avoid. They obscure real meaning and can make the summary sound vague and devoid of specifics.
Start with the original document. Since the executive summary is a summary of another document, you’ll need to be pretty familiar with the original document in order to condense it down to a manageable and informative version. Whether that original document is a report. business plan. proposal, manual or different document, review it, looking for its main ideas.
Write a brief review. What is the purpose of the company sponsoring the document, or of the original document itself? What is its scope?
- Example: “Women World Wide is a not for profit organization that seeks to connect women all around the world with effective solutions to domestic violence, as well as offering a network of support for those suffering from domestic violence. While operating from its headquarters in Alberta, Canada, it has received referrals from women in 170 countries across the globe.”
Make the “grab” shine. This section is probably the most important part of your entire executive summary. In two or three sentences you should tell the reader why your business is special. Why does it deserve the scrutiny, business, or partnership of the people reading the summary?
- Maybe you have Michael Jordan as a customer and he has endorsed your product on Twitter for free. Maybe you just signed a partnership agreement with Google. Maybe you were just awarded a patent, or maybe you just made your first big sale.
- Sometimes just a simple quote or testimonial is enough. The key is to grab the attention of your audience, make the business appear as reputable as possible, and draw the reader in to the rest of the document.
Define the big problem. The first real ingredient of an executive summary is a discussion of a problem, so explain the problem that your products/services address. Make sure the problem is defined as clearly as possible. An ill-defined problem doesn’t sound convincing, and won’t set up your solution to be as impactful as it could be.
- Example: “Los Angeles is crippled with traffic. Apart from the Metro DC area, Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the nation. It’s not just annoying. The smog and pollution caused from gridlock is reducing worker productivity, increasing rates of asthma, and slowly creating a serious health problem. There are more cars in L.A. than there are people old enough to drive them.”
Deliver your unique solution. The big problem is the easy part. Now you have to convince the reader that you have come up with a unique solution for the big problem. If you deliver these two ingredients, you’ll have the makings of a great idea.
- Example: “Innotech has created a groundbreaking traffic control system that shaves minutes off of commute time by installing patented “smart grids” into stoplight lanes that read the amount of cars in any given lane and direct traffic accordingly. No longer will drivers of America have to stand at a red stoplight for minutes while the green light blinks for no cars in the other direction.”
Talk about market potential. Elaborate on the big problem by providing stats for your industry. Be careful not to pretend that you have a larger market than you do! The fact that the medical device industry is $100 billion annually means nothing because your new medical device will only serve a small segment of the industry. Break it down to a realistic market potential.
Incorporate your unique selling proposition. This is where you elaborate on your unique solution. What specifically gives your product or service an advantage over the competition? Maybe your home health care service actually sends doctors to the home instead of just nurse practitioners, or maybe you guarantee same day visits so that you don’t have to schedule ahead of time. Point out why you are special.
- Example: “Intellilight has the added benefit of being able to detect when no one is home. When a light is left on in an empty room, it automatically shuts off and turns back on again when it detects motion in the room. This saves the customer money on their electrical bill and wastes less energy.”
Talk about your business model, if necessary. Some executive summaries will not need a business model. (Nonprofits, not for profits, and NGOs probably won’t have a business plan.) But if yours does, your business model needs to be clear and easy to follow. Essentially, you are answering the question, “How will you get people to take dollars out of their wallet and give them to you?” Keep the model simple, especially in the executive summary. A quick summary is all that is needed.
Discuss your management team, if necessary. Depending on what industry you are in, this can be one of the most important parts of your executive summary. Your investors or bankers are putting trust in the team, not the idea. Ideas are easy to come by, but executing on those ideas can only be accomplished with a strong team. Quickly show why your team has the experience and knowledge to execute your business plan.
Provide financial projections to support your claims. Based on your market, your business model, and your historical performance, you need to develop a bottom-up financial forecast. The point of your projections is simply to demonstrate your competence, and your ability to build financial projections based on a sound set of assumptions.
- If your plan is for a group of investors, don’t spend too much time on this section because they know that you have no idea how much money you might make. Investors typically won’t make a go/no-go decision based on your financial projections. They will essentially make their own financial projections.
Ease in to your request. Now it’s time to request either an investment or loan, depending on the purpose of the executive summary. You should restate why your company provides value. Remind the reader of the big pain that you are solving and your market potential. Finally reemphasize your team and its ability to get the job done. Ask for the dollar amount needed to reach the next major milestone for your business. Don’t disclose how much equity you are willing to give up or what interest rate you are willing to pay. This should be done later through face-to-face negotiation.
Reread your summary. When you have written the basics, reread it carefully. You should proofread the summary with extra care. While you are rereading, also consider your audience for the document. Make sure any new references are explained and that the language will be clear to someone who is new to this topic. Rewrite as necessary.
- Have a pair of fresh eyes reread your executive summary, paying special attention to:
- Clarity. Are the words clear, the ideas clearer, and the summary devoid of jargon?
- Errors. Grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors may abound. Having someone fact-check the figures and statistics might be a good ideal as well.
- Forcefulness. Do the ideas translate into a stirring pitch? Where does the pitch fall flat, if at all?
- Coherence. What parts don’t fit together? What parts do?