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How to write an executive summary

How to write an executive summary

Clear, concise, persuasive, and attention-grabbing – that’s how to write an executive summary. It’s the one part of your entire report everyone will read, and for most people, it might be the only thing they read.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is, by its very nature, a summarization of information, serving as an introduction to a proposal, the executive summary often contains brief statements describing what will be further detailed in the coming proposal.

In an average proposal, the executive summary only offers short information in a rote manner. But an outstanding executive summary presents a roundup of the entire proposal in a way that engages the client and works to SELL.

Where does an executive summary go?

Typically, you’ll want to include the executive summary at the beginning of your business document. This is because the sole purpose of the executive summary is to provide an overview of the following document – similar to an abstract in an academic paper.

What should be included in an executive summary?

Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when writing an effective summary + our free template to help you out!

Do’s

1. Write a shining intro paragraph

According to a multitude of internet sources, there is a specific length to which an executive summary should adhere. This is not the case. While an executive summary should not be overly lengthy, it should be a comprehensive statement of the overall proposal.

The executive summary must have a brilliant introductory paragraph. If potential clients only skim your proposal, you want to make sure the first thing they are likely to read is the strongest part of your entire proposal.

This intro paragraph should be attention-getting from the start. It is wise to bring in impressive attributes of your company, but be specific as opposed to general. Potential clients will want to see real evidence of demonstrated skills and unique abilities. Use this section to highlight company or employee accolades.

The purpose of any proposal, and by extension executive summary, is to sell. Give a quick punch, making a confident sell to the client. This is done by providing a unique approach to the problem/issue/need at hand.

2. Provide a thoughtful aim to your audience

As you wow your reader with an exciting sell and dramatic intro, you’ll want to think about gearing the proposal and the executive summary specifically to your audience. Even when using a template, a proposal should be tailored to each client’s unique needs and problems.

The executive summary is an ideal place to start aiming thoughtfully at your key target audience. Here you can further identify the issue facing the client — such as a need for a new marketing strategy, loss of sales, importance of a redesigned website, etc.

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 attention to detail. Silly mistakes can and must be avoided.

Your goal is to be the most successful company to submit a proposal to your potential client. Even 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 created by our trusty team of successful accountants, lawyers, and small business owners who use these documents every day.

What kind of templates can help you with how to write an executive summary?

Or you can go ahead and create your own templates to reuse, send online and track easily!

Don’ts

1. Steer clear of sweeping generalizations or false information

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 have the effect of lumping you alongside your sub-par 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 come up with a creative, professional piece of work that you will be proud and excited to share with potential clients.

2. Don’t get technical

There’s a time and place for everything. Your elevator pitch, which is essentially what your executive summary is, isn’t the place to do it. As a rule of thumb, technical, 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 getting additional funding or startup capital for your company, remember – go easy on the length. The idea is to make your reader curious about the rest of your business plan, report, or proposal.

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. Leave your company history in the past

They don’t call it “history” for nothing. The executive summary is not the place to give the story of your company’s journey from humble beginnings to the shining star it is today. Company history should never appear anywhere in the document unless it is explicitly required. The reader isn’t interested in all that.

Define the problem, define the goal, address the issues, and propose a solution. Anything else outside that realm is just a waste of time for both you and your audience.

5. Don’t leave it till last

Now, this probably goes against everything you’ve learned about report-writing so far, but there’s a good reason for it.

As tempting as it may be to leave the executive summary as the very last thing to add to your report, don’t. There’s always the risk of having to rework everything if you change your mind about certain aspects of its content.

You need to be very clear from the outset about the course of action you want your readers to take. Starting with the summary first cements, in your own mind, what you want the document to achieve. If anything, knowing where you’re going with it makes it easier and faster to compile the entire document.

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 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. Here’s how to write an executive summary for startups.

  1. Describe the business opportunity – In the first paragraph, provide a brief overview of the gap you’ve identified in the market.
  2. Explain how your startup takes advantage of the opportunity – You’ll want to explain how your business serves the market.
  3. Describe your target market – Provide an overview of your target customer base.
  4. Discuss your business model – Outline your products/services, and explain why they appeal to your target market.
  5. Outline your sales and marketing strategy – Briefly describe the marketing plans you have for your products/services.
  6. Describe your competition – Define your strategy for getting a piece of the market share pie and the competitive advantage you offer.
  7. Financial analysis – Provide a summary of your financial plan and include some projections while you’re at it.
  8. Describe the management team – Give a brief overview of their unique skillset and the value they bring to your venture.
  9. 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

The executive summary for established companies takes a slightly different approach. It is focused on providing information on the firm’s growth plans, achievements, outlook, etc.

  1. State the company’s mission – What is the purpose of the firm?
  2. Provide some company information – Describe the product/services it offers, business locations, and key statistics in bulleted form
  3. 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
  4. Include a financial summary – This section is important particularly if the goal of the full business plan is to seek funding
  5. 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?

Here’s how to write an executive summary for a marketing proposal, along with the subheadings you can use in your document.

  1. Introduction – Explain the project and the goal of the marketing plan
  2. Company information – Provide a brief background about your company, its structure, and customer base
  3. Project management team – List the key players in the management team along with their skills and respective roles in achieving the marketing goals
  4. 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
  5. Products and Services – Outline the USPs for your products/services and their competitive advantage in the marketplace
  6. Marketing strategy – Describe the target audience and the methods that will be employed to reach them
  7. Financial planning and projections – Provide information related to the short and long term marketing activities, budget, projected ROI, and related metrics
  8. 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.

  1. Write an opening statement – Provide a brief background on the scope of the report
  2. Explain the purpose of the research – This has to do with the objective of the study
  3. Highlight the methodology – Describe the fact-finding methods used acquiring information and the analysis techniques employed
  4. Outline the key findings – Explain what the outcome of the study was and the key takeaway you want your readers to be aware of
  5. Describe your recommendations – You can also include a justification at this point

That should cover everything you ever needed to know about executive summaries. If you’re interested in learning more about how PandaDoc can help simplify, streamline, and supercharge your entire document workflow, take a peek at our features here.

FAQ

  • An executive summary should be a complete summation of the entire document. The idea is for anyone reading it, to draw meaningful information from it, without necessarily having to read the entire document.

    As a rule of thumb, an effective executive summary should be 5–8% of the whole document. If the complete report is 50 pages, for instance, aim for a 3-4-page executive summary.

  • The executive summary is the first section of the report, plan, or proposal. It appears before the introduction and after the table of contents. An executive summary is essentially a compressed variant of the entire report, which could be 20+ pages long.

    An introduction, on the other hand, is simply a brief explanation of what to expect in the larger document and the reason for it. An executive summary will give you the gist of the entire document; an introduction will not.

Originally published June 20, 2013, updated February 10, 2021

Alex Lamachenka

Alex Lamachenka Sr DemandGen Manager at PandaDoc

Alex is the Sr. Demand Generation Manager (formerly) at PandaDoc who handles content and crowd marketing. His background covers sales, project management, and design. In his free time, you can find him traveling, hiking or tasting local foods.

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