Multi-page documents are commonplace in business environments.
Proposals, research documents, business reports, and other paperwork are critical to achieving buy-in and funding from both clients and internal stakeholders.
Just one problem: Time is a finite resource.
Nobody wants to read a multi-page document without a full understanding of what it is or why it matters.
You need a way to briefly explain what your document is about, what it contains, and why it’s important.
That’s exactly what an executive summary is designed to do.
Let’s take a closer look at how to write one.
What is an executive summary?
An executive summary is a concise overview of a larger document, such as a business plan or report.
It summarizes key points and important information from the document in order to provide decision makers, project stakeholders, and other key readers with a clear understanding of its overall content.
An effective executive summary should be written in an easily digestible form that quickly conveys the main idea and purpose of its larger document.
Think of it as both a summary of what’s inside and a preview of what to expect.
Overall, the goal of the executive summary is to act as a report-in-brief.
But, in proposals and other sales documents, the summary should also work to sell the premise of your document by consolidating the main points of your proposal into a single, streamlined overview.
Where does an executive summary go?
The executive summary goes at the front of your document, usually after a title or cover page.
Many proposals place the document before the table of contents to ensure that it’s the first item someone reads when opening the document.
This is done because the sole purpose of the executive summary is to provide an overview of the document, similar to an abstract in an academic paper.
What should be included in an executive summary?
An executive summary is written to summarize the main points in a document.
The document should distinguish between the most important highlights and leave out less significant information.
Effective executive summaries capture key objectives, outcomes, methodologies and findings in a few sentences or paragraphs.
Here are a few items you might want to include:
- A brief overview of the document’s purpose.
- A summary of any major talking points.
- Key statistics, data, or similar information.
- Estimated timelines, budgets, etc.
- Relevant supporting details (when necessary).
Remember: The goal is to provide readers with a clear understanding of why the document what written and what it contains.
From the perspective of sales proposals, executive summaries also need to entice a stakeholder to turn the page and find out more about your intended product, service, or solution.
Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when writing an effective summary.
You can also use our free template to help you out!
1. Write a compelling intro paragraph
The executive summary should have a brilliant introductory paragraph.
If potential clients only skim your proposal, be sure the first thing they are likely to read is one of the strongest components of your entire proposal.
This intro paragraph should be attention-getting from the start, both in the information it covers and how it addresses the reader.
The content should be specific and targeted.
While potential clients are looking for real evidence of demonstrated skills and unique abilities, your introductory paragraph does more than demonstrate authority.
A strong introductory paragraph should let readers know that they’re in the right place and that the document they are about to commit to reading is intended to solve their specific problem or solution.
As a reminder, the general purpose of any proposal is to sell a product or service.
Your executive summary should sell the main idea, and your introductory paragraph is the starting point.
2. Provide a thoughtful aim to your audience
Proposals and long-form documents should always be targeted to a specific audience.
In business, that audience will be a project stakeholder or review board.
Always keep the goals of the reader in mind while writing your document. In the executive summary, match the solution in your proposal with the interests and goals of your target audience.
Even when using a template, a proposal should be tailored to each client’s unique needs and problems.
Take the time in your summary to identify the issue facing the client — such as a need for a new marketing strategy, loss of sales, importance of a redesigned website, etc. — and point out how your solution addresses those issues.
Once this problem has been identified, offer well-researched, substantiated information about this problem.
Facts, figures, and relevant details are important to the client and will help set you up as an expert who knows a great deal about their company’s specific issues.
After the problem has been named, continue the company-focused aim by showing how your proposed solution will be a success.
An excellent method is to present facts concerning issues, followed quickly by practical yet unique solutions that are designed particularly for the client.
3. Offer up an identifiable goal
A potential client must be able to see just what it is you and your company can do for them.
While solutions and methods are a key part of your executive summary and the proposal in general, what matters most to clients is what the results of these solutions will be.
Demonstrate to your client what great returns they will get from your proposal.
Again, citing figures generated from strong, client-specific research is the key to success here.
Don’t be too general when offering up solutions and results, however.
Simply telling your client that your methods will “increase sales” is not good enough.
Utilize research papers and projections based on realistic market potential as well as examples of past success, and give descriptive and attractive probable outcomes.
Clients love to see what gains your work will bring them, and thorough research is so important in exploring and determining what these gains will be.
4. Pay close attention to detail
Following closely on that last element, attention to detail is paramount throughout the entire executive summary. Nothing ruins the hard work on a proposal more than sloppy writing, grammatical mistakes, or obvious errors.
Most proposals, especially those responding to RFPs and open invitations, are solicited as part of a competitive process. There will be other organizations bidding for the same work and, often, competition will be stiff.
Well-written, polished proposals stand out. Level the playing field by checking and rechecking for any errors. It helps to have a fresh set of eyes to proofread your document for you.
This is a basic element for success. Once this is in place, you can add the elements above to go above and beyond, and hopefully land that next business deal.
5. Use a template to get it done more quickly
PandaDoc offers you many, many free business templates to help you jumpstart your proposal process.
- A sample Business Plan Template or one of our industry-specific usiness Plan templates.
- A sample Sales Proposal Template or one of our industry-specific Business Proposal templates.
Or you can go ahead and create your own templates to reuse, send online and track easily!
6. Write your executive summary last
Even though an executive summary should be at the front of your document, it’s usually best to save it for last.
Because the contents of your executive summary relies on the information compiled in the rest of your document.
Writing it at the end of the process, once you have all of the other sections completed, allows you to summarize and review all of your key points in one concise document.
This gives you an advantage when presenting your proposal as it can quickly provide decision makers with a comprehensive overview of your full offering.
Additionally, having all other elements complete helps to ensure that nothing relevant has been missed from the executive summary.
1. Steer clear of sweeping generalizations
An easy trap to fall into when creating an executive summary, or any part of a proposal is to speak with sweeping generalizations or cliched statements.
This should be avoided as these repetitive and oft-heard ideas can have the effect of lumping you alongside your competitors.
Standing out involves offering unique and valuable information to your client. Honest appraisals and truthful promises are what sell, not overused, recycled ideas and hollow claims.
It is important to review your summary — and your complete business proposal — repeatedly, rewriting and polishing to produce a creative, professional piece of work that you will be proud and excited to share with potential clients.
2. Don’t get technical
Your executive summary is essentially an elevator pitch: long enough to cover the main points, but far too short to go into the weeds with technical details.
As a rule of thumb, technical or in-depth explanations belong to the main body of your report.
The executive summary of your business plan, proposal, or report is designed to grab your reader’s attention and get them excited about what’s to come in the larger document.
Your pitch, regardless of how technical the longer report is, should be written to a layperson’s understanding of what you’re about to offer.
While you’re at it, ditch the jargon.
Clear, concise, and unequivocal language is what you should be going for.
3. Don’t get carried away
As excited as you might be about the prospect of winning a bid or acquiring funding, remember to go easy on the length.
Many sources suggest that executive summaries should adhere to a specific length — usually one or two pages, at most.
This isn’t necessarily the case.
There is no hard and fast cutoff for an executive summary.
Sometimes, the main points of a proposal can be summarized in a few paragraphs. Other times, especially for lengthier documents, it might take one or two pages.
Consider the overall length of your document and adjust accordingly.
The idea is to make your reader curious about the rest of your business plan, report, or proposal.
Often, a one-page executive summary, that captures the important points highlighted in the longer document, will suffice for a 20-page report.
As a rule, executive summaries should be no more than five percent of the overall document.
4. Don’t only talk about yourself
There is no doubt that your company history, experience, and credentials can plan a major role in how you approach a project.
In many cases, the experience your team brings to a project may be what sets your proposal apart from similar offers by other competitors.
But the executive summary isn’t the place to give the story of your company’s journey from humble beginnings to the shining star it is today.
The reader isn’t interested in all that.
Stay focused on your reader, their problems, and the solutions that you can offer. Define the problem, define the goal, address the issues, and propose a solution.
How to write an executive summary
Curious about how to craft an executive summary for your specific document?
Here are some common use cases and how to approach them.
How to write an executive summary for a business plan
When you’re developing a business plan, potential investors, financiers, or other stakeholders will often want to see an executive summary at the beginning to get the 30,000 foot-overview of the plan.
You’ll want to distill the entire plan down into a few paragraphs of concrete summarization with the main points, supported by contextual information that’s important to understand the proposed idea.
Executive summary for a startup business
For startup businesses, the goal is to acquire capital.
This could be in the form of equity financing, government grants, or business loans from banks, the Small Business Administration (SBA), and other lending institutions.
Regardless of the funding source you choose, you need to make a solid case for your business.
Your executive summary should touch on each of the following items (drawn from the sections of your business plan):
- Describe the business opportunity: In the first paragraph, provide a brief overview of the gap you’ve identified in the market.
- Explain how your startup takes advantage of the opportunity: You’ll want to explain how your business serves the market.
- Describe your target market: Provide an overview of your target customer base.
- Discuss your business model: Outline your products/services, and explain why they appeal to your target market.
- Outline your sales and marketing strategy: Briefly describe the marketing plans you have for your products/services.
- Describe your competition: Define your strategy for getting a piece of the market share pie and the competitive advantage you offer.
- Financial analysis: Provide a summary of your financial plan and include some projections while you’re at it.
- Describe the management team: Give a brief overview of their unique skill set and the value they bring to your venture.
- Provide an implementation plan: Highlight some key points on what’s required to take your business from its current planning stage to the point of letting customers walk in the door.
Executive summary for an established business
Both the executive summary and the business plan for an established company takes a slightly different approach.
It is focused on providing information on the firm’s growth plans, achievements, outlook, etc.
Often, business plans for established companies materialize when the company needs to pivot or expand, or when the company changes hands and comes under new leadership.
In this case, your executive summary may need to summarize the present state of the business, what it does, and where it should go by summarizing a different collection of points:
- State the company’s mission: What is the purpose of the firm?
- Provide some company information: Describe the product/services it offers, business locations, and key statistics in bulleted form.
- Highlight achievements: Outline the evolution and growth of the business over the years in terms of its customer base, market share, profitability, valuation, and revenue.
- Include a financial summary: This section is important particularly if the goal of the full business plan is to seek funding.
- Describe the company’s future goals: Provide an overview of the outlook for the firm.
How to write an executive summary for a marketing proposal
The goal of a marketing proposal is to help the prospective client to understand not only what marketing tactics you’ll employ and how much your services will cost but how the bigger picture will work.
This is what you should talk about in your executive summary for a marketing proposal: What outcomes should the client expect and what will it be like to work with you?
In this scenario, the goal of the executive summary is to sell your product or service and compel your reader to move forward.
Draw from the following sections of your proposal to build your summary:
- Introduction: Explain the project and the goal of the marketing plan.
- Company information: Provide a brief background about your company, its structure, and customer base.
- Project management team: List the key players in the management team along with their skills and respective roles in achieving the marketing goals.
- Market analysis: Provide an overview of the marketplace for your products/services, a list of bullet points detailing the trends that influence them, and the key drivers involved.
- Products and Services: Outline the USPs for your products/services and their competitive advantage in the marketplace.
- Marketing strategy: Describe the target audience and the methods that will be employed to reach them.
- Financial planning and projections: Provide information related to the short and long term marketing activities, budget, projected ROI, and related metrics.
- Goals: Summarize the objectives of the marketing campaign and the strategies that will be deployed to them.
How to write an executive summary for a report
Another common use case for the executive summary is to include it as a preface to a report document. It’ll offer the reader perspective as to how the following report and information impact the larger business case.
So, arm the reader with a summary of the report’s objective, methodology, and key findings so that she doesn’t need to connect the dots as she is reading the full report.
Here’s how to write an executive summary for a report.
- Write an opening statement: rovide a brief background on the scope of the report.
- Explain the purpose of the research: This has to do with the objective of the study.
- Highlight the methodology: Describe the fact-finding methods used acquiring information and the analysis techniques employed.
- Outline the key findings: Explain what the outcome of the study was and the key takeaway you want your readers to be aware of.
- Describe your recommendations: You can also include a justification at this point.
That should cover everything you ever needed to know about executive summaries.
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Originally published June 20, 2013, updated February 3, 2023