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What Is an Executive Summary & How to Make It Count

Learn the definition and meaning of an executive summary, why it’s important, best practices, and what mistakes to avoid. And see examples of how it’s done.

Jackie Plaza

6 minute read

What is an executive summary
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Short answer

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is a summary of a document that is intended to provide a quick and easy-to-understand overview of its key points, findings, and recommendations. It is often used as an introduction to a longer document, such as a business plan, report, or proposal.

Executive summaries are typically brief, ranging from 1 to 5 pages in length, and are written in a clear and concise manner.

They are designed to give busy executives and decision-makers a quick overview of the document's contents, without requiring them to read the entire document.

Consequences of a badly written executive summary

A poorly written executive summary undermines document effectiveness. Recognize the potential negative impacts, highlighting the importance of investing time and effort in crafting a high-quality summary.

1. Missed Opportunities: A poorly written summary can cause executives to lose interest or miss key points, leading to missed opportunities for support, funding, or collaboration.

2. Lack of Clarity: An unclear or confusing summary can lead to misinterpretation and miscommunication, hindering a shared understanding of the document's purpose.

3. Lost Investment: In funding or investment proposals, a poorly written summary can deter potential investors or sponsors, making it difficult to secure resources.

4. Diminished Credibility: Grammatical errors, vague statements, or unsubstantiated claims can damage your credibility and erode trust.

5. Ineffective Decision-Making: A badly written summary may fail to provide decision-makers with the necessary information, resulting in delayed decisions or incomplete understanding.

6. Wasted Time and Effort: A poor summary renders the work put into the underlying document ineffective, wasting time and effort.

By understanding these pitfalls, you can strive for excellence in your executive summaries, ensuring that your message is clear, impactful, and well-received.

Why is an executive summary important?

An executive summary is important because it provides decision-makers with the information they need to make informed decisions quickly and efficiently.

It is often the first thing that busy executives will read, and it is critical that it provides a clear and concise summary of the document's main points.

Additionally, an executive summary can help to ensure that the document is read and understood by a wider audience.

It can be distributed more widely than the full document and used to promote the document's contents to potential investors, partners, or customers.

Key roles of an executive summary in business documents

An effective executive summary is a strategic component that encapsulates key information concisely, maximizing communication impact and achieving desired outcomes. Below are some of the key benefits it provides.

Concise Communication:

An executive summary condenses the main points of a document into a concise format. It allows busy readers to quickly grasp the essential information without having to dive into lengthy reports or proposals.

Capturing Attention:

Executives and stakeholders often have limited time and attention spans. An engaging and well-crafted executive summary hooks their interest and encourages them to delve deeper into the details.

Decision-Making Tool:

Decision-makers rely on executive summaries to evaluate proposals, make informed choices, and allocate resources. A clear and persuasive summary can significantly impact their decisions and support your desired outcomes.

Alignment and Clarity:

An executive summary ensures that all parties involved have a shared understanding of the document's purpose, objectives, and key findings. It helps align perspectives and facilitates efficient collaboration.

Time and Resource Optimization:

By providing a succinct overview, an executive summary saves time and effort for both the writer and the reader. It helps streamline communication processes, ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

Standalone Value:

An executive summary can also function as a standalone document. In situations where a full report might not be required or feasible, a well-crafted summary can effectively communicate the main points and key takeaways.

When should an executive summary be used?

An executive summary should be used whenever a document is long or complex and requires a summary to help busy executives and decision-makers understand its contents.

Some common examples of when an executive summary should be used include:

- Business plans

- Reports

- Proposals

- Research papers

- Marketing plans

- Investment proposals

Types of Executive Summaries

Before we dive into the steps of writing an executive summary, let's briefly explore the various types you may encounter:

1) Business Plan Executive Summary:

A succinct overview of a company's business plan, highlighting its mission, market analysis, products/services, financial projections, and growth strategies.

2) Project Proposal Executive Summary:

A condensed version of a project proposal, outlining its objectives, scope, methodology, budget, and anticipated outcomes.

3) Research Report Executive Summary:

A summary of a comprehensive research report, providing an overview of the study, methodology, key findings, and recommendations.

4) Marketing Plan Executive Summary:

An overview of a marketing plan, encompassing market analysis, target audience, marketing strategies, and anticipated results.

How to write an effective executive summary

Writing an effective executive summary is an art form. Done right it will create interest and drive for your audience to grant you their full attention and read your business document in full.

There’s a lot that goes into this. So much so, we wrote an entire post about how to write an executive summary. But the basics are also included here.

1) now Your Audience:

The first step in writing an effective executive summary is to know your audience. Who will be reading your summary? What are their interests and concerns? What are their goals and objectives?

Understanding your audience will help you tailor your summary to their specific needs and interests.

2) Keep It Concise:

One of the most important aspects of an executive summary is its brevity. Your summary should be concise and to the point, highlighting only the most important information.

A good rule of thumb is to keep your summary to no more than one or two pages.

3) Use Clear and Simple Language:

When writing an executive summary, it is important to use clear and simple language. Avoid technical jargon and complex terminology that may be difficult for your audience to understand.

Use language that is easy to read and comprehend.

4) Highlight Key Points:

Your executive summary should highlight the key points of your document or proposal. Identify the main ideas and arguments, and present them in a clear and concise manner. Tools like a text summary generator may prove useful for this task.

Use bullet points or numbered lists to make your summary easy to scan and read.

5) Edit and Proofread:

It is important to edit and proofread your executive summary carefully. Check for spelling and grammar errors, and make sure that your summary is free of typos and other mistakes.

Read your summary aloud to check for flow and clarity, and make any necessary revisions.

Executive summary examples

Below are a few real-world example uses of executive summary in business documents.

I brought you different use cases that more or less represent the common writing format for executive summaries. From the informal (report foreword) to the strictly formalized (IPO executive summary).

1) Amazon: Jeff Bezos 1997 shareholder letter

This executive summary is a 2-page informal executive summary written as a letter to investors personally by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

In his 1997 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos provided an executive summary of Amazon's growth strategy.

He highlighted the company's focus on customer satisfaction, the importance of expanding product offerings, and the goal of becoming the "Earth's biggest bookstore."

This executive summary helped investors understand Amazon's vision and strategy for success.

Read Jeff Bezos' 1997 shareholder letter.

2) From the Facebook: 2012 IPO Prospectus executive summary

This executive summary example is a 9-page coverage of Facebook’s entire activity. This type of summary should be reserved for formal documents with strict rules like an IPO Prospectus.

Facebook's 2012 IPO prospectus included an executive summary that conveys the company's mission to create a more open and connected world.

They emphasize the importance of user engagement, connecting with friends and family, and staying informed about global events.

Facebook highlights the value they provide to developers by offering a platform for creating personalized and social apps. Advertisers are presented with Facebook's vast reach and targeting capabilities.

The summary outlines Facebook's strategies for growth, including expanding their user base, improving products, and enhancing mobile experiences.

The summary concludes with information about the company's public offering and mentions potential risks they face.

Read Facebook's 2012 IPO prospectus.

3) Tesla 2021 impact report foreword

This example is of an executive summary of the kind you’ll commonly find in corporate reports and white papers. It’s not formally called an executive summary but could be called different things like a foreword, introduction, or something else.

The foreword of Tesla's 2021 Impact Report emphasizes the company's commitment to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.

Tesla conducted a comprehensive materiality analysis to understand key ESG topics that impact their business and stakeholders.

The report also highlights Tesla's engagement with a diverse ecosystem of stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors, suppliers, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, governments, and trade associations.

The foreword sets the stage for Tesla's ongoing efforts to innovate and grow sustainably.

Read Tesla's 2021 impact report foreword.

Jackie Plaza

Hi, I’m Jackie, Creative Marketing Specialist at Storydoc, I write on everything business presentations. I love to research and bring to light critical information that helps marketing, sales, and design teams get better results with their collateral.

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