The Art of the Executive Summary
How to Create an Executive Summary
Raise your hand if you have ever sat through a presentation and walked away not understanding its message. Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever asked an employee to give you a project briefing, only for them to bury you in data, facts and graphics. Finally, raise your hand if you’ve ever picked up a 30-page report, wishing to get right to the key points, but forced to read the whole thing. Most managers and business leaders would raise their hands to all three of these situations. So what’s the issue? The common denominator in all three of these situation is that they are all missing an executive summary.
The Importance of Summarizing
Part of your job as a manager is to serve as a conduit between the upper and lower parts of the organization. Sharing progress with the top, for example, while communicating actions and initiatives downward into your organization. Doing this well means that you need to routinely boil down a lot of information into concise nuggets that deliver a message quickly and efficiently. So whether you are communicating with your CEO, making a presentation to a customer, or simply reporting data to your own supervisor, the principles are all the same.
Every meeting, monthly report, sales presentation and project update should include a high level takeaway message such that others can easily grasp the information. Further, executive summaries are intended to be packed with information, yet easy to digest in just a few minutes. Given this contrast, it is easy to see why so many people struggle creating summarizing information and building a takeaway message. Even so, whether part of a written report or a an in-person presentation, the executive summary is the most powerful part of delivering your message because it takes all your research and hard work, and repackages it in a nice, tidy form for others to understand. For this reason, you may find yourself almost spending as much time on your summary as you are the rest of the presentation.
What to Include in Your Executive Summary
Every report, document or presentation has a purpose. Maybe it’s to state the results of your financial analysis, or maybe it’s intended to convince someone else to take a certain action. The intent may simply be to report out status on a project. The key to making a good executive summary is to make sure it mirrors this intent. By understanding the intent of the executive summary, it will help you select the most appropriate information to share. Here are some examples of information you may wish to include in an executive summary, depending on your needs:
- Sources of the Information
- Volume of Data Considered
- Techniques, Tools or Processes Used
- Amount of Resources Consumed in Analysis
- Investment Needed to Reach Next Phase
- Key Observations or Risks
- Recommended Actions
Ultimately, the items you choose to include in an executive summary should be your way of saying “Here is what you need to know.”
Four Keys to Creating an Effective Executive Summary
1. Synthesize the Data, Don’t Repeat It
When you create an executive summary, you are really boiling down numerous spreadsheets of data, analytical comparisons, and answers to a number of questions and repackaging all of it into a well-groomed pacakage. Your job was to look at all the information, draw conclusions and the report this to someone else. Thus, your executive summary should ideally not repeat the data or information shown elsewhere. Rather, your executive summary is the message that emerges from your analysis and examination of the facts and figures.
2. Less is More
Managers today are faced with the growing challenge of time constraints. Free time is nearing extinction, it seems. Thus, when you create an executive summary, it should be brief, to the point, and stand by itself. If you provide too much information, your run the risk of having your audience miss the point. If it’s a report you are writing, your summary section should have short sentences that state essential data. If you’re creating a slide presentation, do your best to fit your executive summary onto a single slide. Remember, the brief summary is supported by the follow-on sections of the report, the document or the presentation, and the audience can always choose to read more if desired, or as time permits. What’s a good way to know how much to include? Make sure you include enough that they have all the information to comfortably explain your work to another person. To illustrate this point, imagine Mike only has time to review Sarah’s summary before going into a meeting. Imagine how Mike would explain the results when asked about Sarah’s report during the meeting:
|Amount of Information||What Mike Would Say to Another||Explanation|
|Not Enough Information||“Sarah’s report said sales will go up in the third quarter somehow.”||Mike did not have enough of an understanding to explain the result to someone else.|
|The Right Amount of Information||“Sarah’s report said sales will go up about 5% in the third quarter. She ran three different evaluations, all of which came to a similar conclusion.”||Mike had enough details to explain the results to someone else so they could understand.|
|Too Much Information||“Sarah’s report said sales will go up in the third quarter. She showed a lot of data, but I think it was 5% growth. I’d have to study it in detail again to know for sure.”||Mike was able to walk away with the basic message, but the specifics were lost in all the details presented.|
3. Place the Executive Summary Appropriately
Different forums require different placement of summarized information. If you are simply reporting data or facts, such as in a quarterly report, or project status, your executive summary should be placed at the front. Give the reviewer what they need and let them go. The audience can always read on to get into the details if time permits. For this, you might want to consider the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) concept. You can read more about BLUF HERE. Conversely, if you are trying to convince someone or make a recommendation on a given topic, you should put your executive summary at the end so that he or she is able to follow your logic such that you can lead them to the same conclusion and let them walk away with that message. Even if they bypass the report and jump to the conclusion, the fact that it’s at the end of long report or presentation slides will suggest the summary is the result of a lengthy and comprehensive analysis.
4. Choose Language Carefully
More often than not, your goal at the outcome of your presentation or your report should be alignment and agreement with the work completed and in some cases, support for the position or opinion presented. And as with any form of communication, the language you use can make or break achievement of your goal. For example, if the executive summary of your written sales pitch says “We at Acme IT Services believe we likely have the right skills to meet your needs,” you will not exactly convince your customer you’re the best one for the job. The same is true for delivering a presentation to your executives and having your slide say “The data suggests this acquisition may generate $10 million in revenue.” Is that $10 million good or bad? What’s the risk it won’t generate that revenue? Thus, when creating an executive summary, select the appropriate language to achieve your purpose. Pay close attention to it. You may even want a trusted colleague have a look to ensure there is no alternate interpretation of your executive summary.
Looking for More? How to Write a Winning Response to an RFP