An executive summary is a short recap of what is presented in lengthier reports but still includes all of the necessary facts, figures and content to help him or her make an informed decision.
Though there are plenty of subjects we can disagree on as a community — there is one constant truth for freelancers: there never seems to be enough time. Everyone is busy — our clients, our editors and ourselves — so the ability to read, digest and understand on the fly is essential. This is where executive summaries (and wordsmiths who are masters at writing them) are beneficial. Not to be confused with an executive biography that tells the background of a C-level professional, summaries are often used to explain lengthy documents in a brief, tangible way.
You can think of it as the back cover of a book, the cliff notes of a novel or even as the trailer for a movie: it gives you the information you need to know without hashing out every last detail. They are often used during a company’s proposal process, as part of a business plan or even used to introduce potential investors to an emerging brand.
Writers are hired for their ability to mull over double-digit pages of information and condense it into an executive summary that’s engaging, accurate and most importantly, effective for the goal at stake.
If you’re interested in adding this marketable skill to your portfolio, consider this your 101 guide to the executive summary — complete with do’s and don’ts and examples that really hit the mark.
So what is an executive summary?
The best way to think of an executive summary is to take a step backward before the document is created — and think about the reader. Sure, that’s journalism basics but it’s something that is sometimes forgotten in the hustle-and-bustle of content writing. The purpose of an executive summary is found in the first word: busy, overworked and in-demand leaders often have limited time. Even so, their opinion, expertise and guidance is needed to grow a business or to approve certain investments or funds.
When we are putting together executive summaries, we want to always keep that manager, founder and boss lady or man in mind. What do we need to provide for them that makes their jobs easier, faster and more efficient? How can we provide the data points, the background, the goals and the current state-of-affairs in a way that’s not overwhelming? How can we get to the point — without losing the point of the proposal or the plan?
Basically: How can we summarize in a way that makes sense and holds the attention of our reader? Through an executive summary that follows the best practices, of course.
As defined by industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an executive summary is a short recap of what is presented in lengthier reports but still includes all of the necessary facts, figures and content to help him or her make an informed decision.
“It is usually found on the first page of a proposal and is designed to highlight all major aspects of the document. The executive can read the summary and then decide if she wants to ask questions or take a deeper dive into the bigger document.”
Though all executive summaries are approached differently and may include various information, you can expect to find some similarities. It may seem elementary but an executive summary is generally trying to answer the basics of writing 101: the who, the what, the when, the where, the why and the how. Without going into extreme detail, most executive summaries will briefly touch on all of these buckets, providing a clear, informative perspective into the goal of the document.
Typically, you can expect something along these lines:
- The sender of the document.
- The document’s contents.
- A key takeaway lists, often in bulleted form.
- The purpose or goal of the document.
- The next steps required from the reader or executive.
How do you write an executive summary?
If you have been a freelance writer and content marketer for a while, you know it’s often the shorter pieces of content that take the most time. After all, finding the most important, intriguing and impactful tidbits from a handful of interviews is no easy task when you’re limited to 500 words in a print publication.
The same can be compared to creating an executive summary. Because these are used for presentations, long-winded proposals and other extensive bodies of work, writers are tasked with reading through every last word, or in some cases, writing the bigger document, all before getting to work on the executive summary. Whew. If you’re new to the process, consider these tips from career coaches and a writer who has been-there, written-that.
Top 5 do’s for writing executive summaries
- Do use an outline.
- Do use bullets for clarity.
- Do provide a call-to-action.
- Do tell the whole story.
- Do direct the reader’s attention.
1. Do use an outline.
If you can think back that far, try to put yourself back into your high school classroom. Without a doubt, English hour was your favorite since tying together paragraphs came easily to you. Do you remember what your teacher demanded before you set down to scribble your essay? An outline.
No matter how long you’ve been in the game, how many books you’ve published or how successful you are, making a game plan before writing is a smart idea. In fact, author, journalist and speaker John-Manuel Andriote begins every writing project — from articles and blog posts to executive summaries — with an outline he calls a skeleton.
Then, he adds the ‘meat’ on the bones by fleshing out the sections, piece-by-piece, using supportive data, research, interviews and more. “Having the outline provides you with the main topics and sections that you will want to highlight in your executive summary and makes it easy to organize and write your executive summary,” he explains.
2. Do use bullets for clarity.
Unless you’re reading a novel on a lazy Saturday afternoon, seeing a page that only has texts is intimidating. Especially in a business environment that capitalizes on speed and efficiency. When writing an executive summary, certified business coach and author Ivy Slater suggests shying away from long paragraphs and use bullets instead.
Because sentences tend to run together when they aren’t organized for clarity and scanning, separating your executive summary into sections will hold the attention of the reader. And as a bonus, this is typically an easier way to write, too. Without having to use long-winded paragraphs, you can cut to the chase and provide a roadmap for the reader.
3. Do provide a call-to-action.
Executive summaries should serve a purpose. And not just any purpose but a very specific, concrete purpose. Without explaining the goal of the attached document, you don’t provide the reader any information on why they need to read the document in front of them. You also don’t instill a sense of urgency or timeline when you forget to list a call-to-action.
As chief brand and engagement officer of EHE Health, Joy Altimare explains, an executive summary should provide the cursory view while highlighting key points and providing an action item:
“Think about the audience reviewing it to ensure you are providing a clear, concise point of view around results, conclusion or recommendations.”
Most of the time, a call-to-action (or a CTA) is to reach out to the sender for more information. Other times, it is a document for additional funds or manpower that needs to be approved. It can also be simply the seal of recognition for where a company is right now, and how the executive will help it to grow even larger. While it depends on the scope of the proposal, project, plan or document, no executive summary is complete without a CTA.
4. Do tell the whole story.
As a journalist, you likely already have your own set of standards and ethics that you follow when bringing on new clients or working for brands. At the heart of an executive summary is accuracy. Since the reader may or may not have time to read the entire document that’s behind the one-pager, fact-checking is required. Or as Slater puts it: an executive summary should tell the whole story, without being misleading. “Get the needed points across and have the next steps outlined so the reader can take the document and use it to formulate action items,” she advises.
When you’re writing the executive summary, look out for any holes that you can alert to your client. They may not even be aware there are mishaps in their stats or missing information that could make a more compelling proposal. Being able to identify if all checkboxes are met will set you apart from other writers hired to write the same task.
5. Do direct the reader’s attention.
For a document that’s particularly clunky and full of hard-to-comprehend information, Hakim suggests going a step further by adding annotations to your executive summary. You can do this by highlighting the most vital bullet points and referencing specific page numbers they can turn to.
“The executive should be able to skim the summary and know what’s in the proposal and what is not in the proposal. A well-written executive summary directs the leader to open the discussion or to move past the proposal and on to a more pressing or fitting task.”
Though you don’t want to be misleading or to steer your reader in a specific direction, providing a reference point will keep them focused and make it more likely they’ll read the summary and move forward to next steps.
Top 5 don’ts for writing executive summaries
- Don’t write it until you’ve read or written it.
- Don’t give away too much information.
- Don’t include personal opinions.
- Don’t be inconsistent.
- Don’t leave the reader with questions.
1. Don’t write it until you’ve read it.
Though this seems simple enough, Andriote says, all too often, writers make the mistake of trying to piece together the executive summary as an outline to work off of, rather than creating a separate blueprint.
Sometimes companies will want a wordsmith to take over the whole project — from proposal to summary — while others will send over the document and pay for the one-pager. Regardless, he says to not even think about writing the executive summary until you have read or written the full report, book or document. If you’ve been contracted to craft it all, Andriote can’t stress the outline enough:
“The time you spend organizing your outline will be time you save writing the executive summary as it will practically write itself from the outline.”
2. Don’t give away too much information.
Have you ever read the back cover or the side sleeve of a book and felt like you already know everything that is going to happen? Or watch a movie trailer and lose interest, since the plotline was obvious?
When you’re piecing together executive summaries, remember to give the necessary info — but not all of it. This is especially true when you’re writing a summary for someone who is applying for a new leadership opportunity. The employer should be intrigued by the executive summary that describes their body of work — but also left wanting more, according to Slater.
3. Don’t include personal opinions.
There’s a time and a place for sharing your two cents — and that’s after the reader has had a chance to digest the executive summary. Say a company is seeking seed funding to move their budding business to the next level. They have created an impressive proposal but chances are slim interested ‘sharks’ will look beyond the executive summary.
This document should be compelling enough to get their attention so they contact the founder for a meeting. Then, the founder can share their opinion, but not before, according to Altimare.
4. Don’t be inconsistent.
If your executive summary states sales grew 30 percent over the past two quarters, but a later page says 20 percent — you have a problem. Because the executive summary is a preview and condensed version of an existing document, it should be a mirror image of other info.
And when at all possible, the executive summary should follow the same format of the presentation or proposal, according to Slater. This means if you have the mission first, the numbers second and the goals last in the big document, the bite-sized one should feature the same order.
5. Don’t leave your reader with questions.
Or rather: The reader shouldn’t be scratching their head trying to understand the purpose of your executive summary. This is when your creative writing skill can take a backseat. Lofty language and an impressive vocabulary are great attributes of a talented wordsmith but it’s better to be thorough and basic when writing these documents.
“Even though your focus is on a short and sweet summary, you shouldn’t leave out key points,” Hakim continues. “A good rule of thumb is to cover the material found in each of the major subheadings of your document. You might also look at your table of contents to ensure that you haven’t missed any key highlights.”
Top 5 executive summary examples
There are plenty of ways to utilize executive summaries throughout nearly every industry. You’ve likely even read a few without realizing they had a special name or were part of a unique market of freelancing opportunities. Slater says executive summary examples include business plans, a plan for expansion, a report on finances, and many other instances.
Here, a few examples:
- A business plan or pitch for investors.
- A year-end summary for a business.
- A resume.
- A team training or onboarding guide.
- A financial or technical report.
1. Executive summary example for a business plan or pitch for investors
After coming up with what they hope will be a million-dollar idea, the founder of a beauty company that’s disrupting the industry is looking for investors. To earn their interest and eventually, their financial means, they need to create a business plan and pitch.
Slater says this document will include everything from their background and the mission of the company to their sales to date and how they intend to use the funds. The one-page executive summary would serve as the guide for this all-too-important pitching process.
It may include:
- A brief background on the company
- What makes them different
- Impressive and interesting statistics and figures to back their brand
- Their future goals
- The CTA to the reader
2. Executive summary example for a year-end summary for a business
When you were traditionally employed before going freelance full-time, you likely had a year-end meeting to reflect on the past 12 months. Slater says this report is often conducted for public companies and will be used for private companies that have investors.
Often, executives will even ask for information like this quarter-by-quarter from the leadership team so they always have a pulse on every department. “By including an executive summary, the leader gets a quick overview of what is in the report. If interested, he may then go straight to the table of contents to focus in more detail on a specific area of the report,” Hakim shares.
Here’s what it might include:
- The purpose of the report
- Bulleted list separated by successes of every quarter
- Bulleted list of goals for the upcoming year
- A CTA for the reader
3. Executive summary example for a job application
Yep, you read that correctly: executive summaries can be used in place of a cover letter! Though this is typically only used once you reach a leadership or expert-level in your career, they can be incredibly helpful when working with recruiters.
Because it’s meant to demonstrate the most impressive skills and information from your background, Altimare says hiring managers and recruiters can easily digest your candidacy. And, they often set you apart from those folks who only provide a resume.
This type of executive summary may include:
- Brief, two-sentence biography
- Bulleted list of past three positions
- Bulleted list of impressive ways you helped past companies succeed, using percentages of growth and other figures
- Current salary requirements
- CTA and contact information to set up an interview
4. Executive summary example for a financial or technical report
Though it may not be your cup-of-tea, technical and financial reports are not only an important investment for businesses — but a necessary one. As Altimare explains, these very dense, data-driven documents include tons of information, often teetering over 100 pages in length.
It’s highly unlikely anyone will read every last line, which is where a solid executive summary makes a difference in comprehension. “Executive summaries to keep the reader engaged and excited to read and reference the entire document for future use,” she explains.
It may include:
- Mission of the document
- Current state of business
- State of business over the past year, in a bulleted list
- Current hurdles or roadblocks
- Current projections
- CTA for the reader
5. Executive summary example for a training project
Though it is dependent on industry, Hakim says training projects are often a good case study for an executive summary. Take, for instance, a company offsite for the marketing team. The leader wants to go through every aspect of the business from each team leader. They also want to state their own goals as a collective, save time for feedback and brainstorming, as well as team bonding.
Sure, this information isn’t as cumbersome to understand as other documents but when it’s 50 pages long, an executive summary keeps everyone on task.
It may include:
- Mission of the day and offsite
- Schedule of events
- State of business from each team lead, in bulleted form
- Goals of business from each team lead, in bulleted form
- CTA for readers
Executive summaries are widespread and effective for companies of all sizes and industries. Writers who can condense mega-guides into comprehensive executive summaries are in high demand, especially as more and more companies are founded every day. Take these skills and try them yourself — you never know what client you may land!