Producing an Executive Summary

An executive summary is a short section of a document that summarises a much longer report or study. The intention is that a reader can familiarise themselves with the key points of a document without having to read it in its entirety.

Sometimes, executive summaries are read by people who want a ‘flavour’ of a report and might use it to work out whether it was worth reading the whole document. More importantly, it may be aimed at senior managers or members of a board who do not have the time to read the whole document but need to be aware of a report’s key recommendations before they can make a decision.

To achieve a positive outcome, you need to plan out the key messages that are most relevant to your intended audience. Ask yourself: what makes your plan worth reading? Who is it intended for? Why is it worth their time? These questions need to be answered in your summary.

Identify key points

The executive summary is arguably the most important part of a document. But no matter how good the rest of the report is, if the executive summary does not adequately convey its messages, it will not have the desired impact. The executive summary needs to include information that makes the overall plan worth reading.

Try to keep your summary between 1-2 pages long, or no more than 10% of the length of your business plan. This should help get your main points across faster. You should also avoid writing your summary like an advertisement. An overly optimistic or exaggerated summary might not be taken seriously. Instead, be realistic with your findings and offer a prediction for best and worse-case scenarios.

Know your audience

It is essential to be conscious of your audience when writing an executive summary. If you know the report is to be considered by a board, then write the executive summary with the board members in mind.

An effective way of doing this would be to imagine yourself talking with a member of your audience. If you had just a few minutes to talk to them about your report, what would you tell them? It’s unlikely that you would waste time providing them with lots of background and contextual information. You’d instead focus on the originality of your report, key findings and any recommendations.

Of course, you also need to be conscious of what the intended audience already knows about a subject. If they know relatively little, you will need to include enough information to ensure they understand the message.

Structure

Like any document, your summary must have a beginning, middle, and end. The executive summary should begin with an introduction, which sets the scene and explains the purpose of the report or study. It will signpost the reader to what comes next, namely the key findings and the recommendations.

The main body will then present the key findings. These may be given separate headings to help emphasise the point. The section will also include the recommendations and any other interesting points that may be relevant to the intended audience.

On reaching the conclusion, the reader should have a clear understanding of the key messages and recommendations and, where relevant, know what is expected of them.

Lastly…

Once you have completed your document, it can be a good idea to get someone you trust to proofread it before you submit it. You only have one chance to impress with this document, so make sure that any mistakes are picked up by this stage and make any necessary amendments.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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