(originally posted Feb 17, 2016)
I was ‘tracked down’ on the ski hill this past weekend by a friend who complained that his staff had no idea how to write an executive summary. It seems that he ends up rewriting most of the summaries before they head out the door.
In the allotted length of the ski lift ride, I was able to blurt out something that I thought afterwards seemed like good advice – but I will get to that in a moment.
In the 24-hour aftermath of that conversation I began to think that this was a great question. Executive summaries are something that we all have to produce many times over.
Do we get it right?
Inc. Magazine suggests, “The reason most (business entrepreneurs) get executive summaries wrong is that they believe the goal of the executive summary is to get the investors to give them a check (sic) ….The (real) goal of the executive summary is to get the investor to read the business plan or to meet with you.”
Regardless of whether you are asking for funding, approval for a new initiative or simply updating a current project, we are making the same mistake. We mistakenly think that the executive summary is designed to cover it all in a condensed format in one or two pages. It isn’t.
The executive summary, Inc. goes on to say “…is an essential gateway for your business plan to get read. Think about it this way: If you had an endless list of things to do, and someone handed you an 80-page document and said, ‘Read this!’ you’d probably first want to know why.”
So, it is not the ‘what’ but the ‘why’. The executive summary is the hook to the 80-page report.
Let’s look at some basics.
- How long? My daughter, looking over my shoulder as I type, says 1 page. Her university has set this standard. I challenged her by asking ‘what font’, because many of us will try to cheat and take it down to an unreadable 10 or even 11 point font just to get it to one page. I suggest that two pages is allowable so long as it is formatted properly – see the next point below.
- Your executive summary should be as readable as the report itself – broken into sections with point form when required. My friend, Benoit De Grâce , wrote a great chapter in our book The Keys to Our Success that talked about ‘The power of seven’. Chunk your content into consumable parts – 7 (plus or minus 2) of them to be exact. Great advice for so much of our output. You do not have to (should not) write paragraph after paragraph because that’s the way you were taught. The goal is to make this readable and understandable at first glance. Break it up. Chunk into 5 or 7 points or sections. Give them clear headings. Unfortunately, the reader might read through it pretty quickly and if you don’t make it easy on the eyes and brain, it won’t get read properly.
- Start with a POP! I was taught early to start all of my speeches with a POP! So it goes with an executive summary. Grab the reader immediately. Get their attention. Startle them. Shock them. Do or say something that will ensure they read on with interest.
- Tell me the punch line right up front. Don’t make me wait until the last paragraph or the last page of the 80-page report to hear what the ‘ask’ is. Give it to me right upfront so that I can relate the detail to the purposes all the way through.
- Finish well. Tell me what you wanted to tell me, repeat what you told me and leave me with something to go away with.
So, what did I tell my friend on the chairlift this weekend?
Here was my out-of-the-box thinking in under 5 minutes. Each week, hold a contest. Send out a report that everyone is familiar with: a sales proposal, a summary of activities, an idea pitch. Ask everyone to create an executive summary for that document and offer a prize for the winner. Offer a gift certificate of $100 to their favourite restaurant as the prize.
You and a committee of 1 or 2 read them all and declare a winner. But then you publish why this particular piece won the contest. The learning part here is the key. Next week, or two weeks from now, or next month, do it again. A new report and hopefully a new winner.
Four contests later they will hopefully have learned what makes a good executive summary.
Executives summaries are the most important element of any report. Do it right and you may hear the words “You had me after the executive summary” instead of “What report are you referring to?”
With thanks from my ever diligent editors Karen Barrett and Brian Wilkinson