Let’s face it: People may not read the documents we send them. They might read the first and last paragraphs, or skim the whole document. But a deep, careful reading of the whole thing? Not likely. That’s why executive summaries are so important: Because your readers might actually read them.
Executives might not have time to read a long report or proposal, but they need to understand the essential information. You might ask yourself why you have to write the whole document if your key readers are only going to read the summary. You must include all the details because the summary might trigger their interest in delving deeper. Nevertheless, be prepared for the possibility that the executive summary will be the only thing your key readers read. Thus, the executive summary is crucial to your document's success.
What do you need to know about writing these important paragraphs?
Start with the Three Ps
In the Worktalk Business Writing Workshop, we talk extensively about the Three Ps: Purpose, Person, and Point. These elements form the DNA of every communication. Your executive summary is a distillation of the Three Ps.
As with all writing, the first question is, “What is the purpose of this document?” Is it to inform your readers about the results of a study? To request authorization for a purchase or investment? To persuade them to change their opinion about a new project? You will write different executive summaries for documents with different purposes.
Next, consider the person or key people who will read your summary. What is most important to them? What factors will change their minds? If your purpose is to request or persuade, you will need to clearly highlight the benefits in the executive summary.
Third, consider the main point of the whole document. If you ran into your key reader in an express elevator and asked, “Did you read my report?” and the person replied, “I don’t have time to read your report. Just tell me what it said.” Whatever you would answer in the next 15 seconds is your point. This point must appear in the executive summary.
Creating An Executive Summary
Do the Three Ps. They are the essence of your summary.
- The point may coincide with the Subject line.
- “Corrosion Levels Decreased in Q1”
- State the purpose in the first line of the summary.
- “This proposal requests authorization to purchase new billing software.”
- Highlight the points that are of greatest significance to your key readers.
- “Purchasing the software will reduce billing time and therefore speed up our payment cycle.”
Informative Executive Summaries
The structure of your executive summary depends on its purpose. If your purpose is to summarize the contents of the document, that is, to inform, then you can follow a simple method:
- Write a simple declarative sentence for each of the main points in your letter. If you have written carefully, you should be able to take the topic sentences of each paragraph and weave them together into an executive summary.
- Add supporting or explanatory sentences as needed, avoiding unnecessary technical material and jargon.
- Read the summary slowly and critically, making sure it conveys your purpose, message and key recommendations. Remember, you want readers to be able to skim the summary without missing the point of the main report.
Summaries that Request or Persuade
If you want your reader to think differently or act based on your summary, you need to target the benefits that matter to the reader. State the purpose of the document in your first sentence, and then load on the benefits. For example:
[PURPOSE]This proposal recommends that we renew our agreement with Cyber-Sleuth, Inc. for the provision of cyber-security services. [BENEFITS] Cyber-Sleuth has stopped five cyber-attacks on our customers’ information. We estimate that Cyber-Sleuth has saved the company $5.5 million in potential losses, in addition to preventing a loss of reputation. It is the least costly of the services from whom we received proposals. Cyber-Sleuth staff members have been consistently responsive and responsible. They protect our online integrity, save us money, and serve us well.
Keep It Short
Shorter is better. Clarify your purpose, decide what is most important to your reader, and highlight the main points. Then your busy readers will read, understand, and, we hope, agree with what you have to say.
© 2014 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved