Being asked to write an executive summary for a business case proposal may be a daunting prospect if you’ve never done it before. It is much more straightforward when you keep some simple concepts in mind as outlined below.
Firstly, it is very important to know your audience. The intended audience for an executive summary can be quite different from the intended audience for the complete report.
The executive summary serves several possible purposes.
1. Approval: a decision-maker will usually only read the executive summary and not the full report. What goes into the executive summary, therefore, forms the basis of the decision that is made. For these people, the executive summary is their window onto the subject, and it needs to be clear and transparent, if they are to understand and agree to it.
2. Delivery: implementers will read the executive summary to find out if they need to read the full report. This group of subject matter experts are charged with implementing the project once it is approved and looking for a broad summary of the contents of the full report.
3. Review: reviewers may either be lay professionals or technical experts and will want to find out what the report is about and welcome a good summary of the contents.
Think about your intended audience: who (and why) do you want them to read your executive summary. Obviously, decision-makers are high on this list.
Know Your Audience
The first question to ask is “Who am I writing this for?”. Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing.
When writing letters or emails, the answer is more obvious but for a business case the answer may not be as obvious.
Adapting Writing to the Audience
Knowing who your audience is means that you can adapt the content of your writing to address their main concerns. It will also help you to decide on the “voice” to use.
The writer’s voice describes the individual writing style but also includes how formal or informal (relaxed) the tone of voice should be. Letters or emails to colleagues may be written in a very informal style since there is already a degree or familiarity between the writer (you) and the audience (your colleague). However, this same style is not appropriate in professional situations where a more formal tone is needed.
If you are writing to very busy people, then you should adopt a brief and succinct written style that conveys the key messages quickly and clearly.
You could also consider including graphs, charts, diagrams or illustrations if this helps to convey the key messages more succinctly than elaborate and convoluted text.
If you know that you are writing to people who want or need detailed content, then provide it. If you are not sure how much detail is required, then ask first.
Before you start writing your executive summary you should identify the audience of your writing and tailor your writing style to suit.
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 and do, as a result of reading your report.
You need to identify what are the key messages that you want your audience to have in their heads, when they have finished reading. Information and concepts that they did not have before. Action you want them to take.
A good way to think about the key content is to imagine meeting one of the intended recipients in the corridor: what three key points about your executive summary would you want to tell them?
Work on reducing your key messages down to three 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
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 think: how much do they already know, and how much do you need to explain? If your audience includes lay professionals, you probably need to explain everything.
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.
Broadly, an executive summary, as you might expect, summarises the main points of the underlying report, 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 report is about, including what action needs to be taken as a result. It doesn’t need to be more than one or two sentences.
The main body of the text outlines the key findings from the report 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 needs to stand alone without the reader having to refer to the main body of the report. 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 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 messages come in.
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.