The (sub)genre of the executive summary. [Version 2.0]

[updated from the original post on March 16, 2016]

When a business professional needs to influence other people to do something not obviously beneficial to them, the individual often writes a persuasive document. That’s why we have proposals, business plans, recommendation reports, white papers, etc. Because such documents present complex information, they are usually lengthy. But readers are busy! So writers need to provide their audience with a way to decide if the entire document is worth reading. That’s why writers create introductions, abstracts, or executive summaries.

This post provides the basics for writing an executive summary. Sad to say I had to rely almost exclusively on prescriptive sources as there just isn’t any descriptive research on this (sub)genre of business reports (see below). I will note, however, that Lagerwerf and Bossers confirmed that decision makers were more likely to read the executive summary in business proposals than any other section of the document.

Creating an Executive Summary

I advocate following five steps to create an executive summary.

1. Clarify your bottom line

If you’re not clear about what your reader should do after reading your report, you can bet your reader won’t be either. The one idea you want your reader to get (or the one thing you want them to do) is the bottom line message.

Yeung’s research into business reports concluded that recommendations are critical. They represent solutions to existing business problems. They support decision-making. Often, the bottom line of your report is a recommendation.

Some folks talk about the bottom line as the “big ask.” Business writing consultants at Good Copy, Bad Copy provide some good examples:

  • Adopt my proposed compensation scheme across the firm
  • Agree to my suggested strategy for the operations team
  • Provide the budget for the comms plan I’m presenting in the report

So before you begin writing, clearly state your bottom line. I like to write it on a post-it and attach it to my computer monitor so I can constantly remind myself what it is. It’s easy to get off track. The post-it is my guidepost as I make choices about content, organization, etc. while I write.

2. Analyze your readers

See the system I recommend. In short, you must think as objectively as possible about  (1) your relationship with the audience and (2) the audience’s readiness–both ability and willingness–to accept your bottom line message.

3. Develop your content

This Inc. magazine piece offers a good explanation of the required content for an executive summary, as well as more and less effective examples. Here’s a further simplified approach.

  • Describe a problem, need or goal. The key is to describe something your reader is ready to hear with no additional explanation needed.
  • Describe the desired outcome. Again, the key is to BRIEFLY assure the readers you understand their wants and needs.
  • Describe your proposed solution. This is your bottom line: what should your reader know or do to get the desired outcome?
  • Support your proposed solution. You want to give your reader a limited number of specific highlights from the report. Choose those that directly support your bottom line. And choose only those that require little, if any, detailed explanation.

Let’s consider how content from two sample executive summaries matches up. Both were written for clients by a team of consultants demonstrating the value of data analytics for the clients’ organization.

Executive Summary for Report A Executive Summary for Report B
Describing the problem, need, or goal of the reader In the United States, Louisiana ranks highest in automobile insurance rates—this is due in part to insurance fraud. Some but not all fraud is detected. Previous direct mail campaigns to reach new customers at Magazine Z resulted in an estimated annual net loss of $7K.
Describing the reader’s desired outcome A technique for better detecting fraudulent claims would deter them and lower insurance rates. A strategy for better predicting new customer response would improve return on investment.
Stating the bottom line (proposed solution) To identify those with the highest odds of being fraudsters, drivers were ranked by modeling (1) the number of crashes, (2) the total number of not-at-fault crashes, and (3) the total number of rear-end, not-at-fault crashes. To determine the probability of positive customer response, three campaign strategies were developed based on modeling the characteristics of the different sources of new customers.
Supporting the bottom line with specific highlights from the report We developed our model using crash data from 1999 to 2012 from the Highway Safety Research Group. We analyzed crash characteristics of drivers involved in two-vehicle, rear-end crashes…

The model successfully detected one convicted fraudster with 69 crashes who is currently awaiting sentencing…

Each strategy involves modeling customer age and campaign month. The distribution of age showed three distinct groups. In addition, each campaign month varied wildly in success…

Using one of our model-based strategies (for hunting and fishing licenses as a source of new customers) should result in an estimated positive return of $25K annually…

In both executive summaries, the consultants began by describing an existing problem and desired outcome of interest to the client in language an executive can quickly grasp: better fraud detection in Report A and better prediction of customer response in Report B. Getting this information up front is how the consultants demonstrated they listened to their clients.

Describing a problem is critical for all executive summaries because it makes explicit the connection between the detailed information in the report and the reader’s needs. Note that a 2016 report from MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS used the graphic below to demonstrate that data analytics rarely results in insights actually used to guide decision-making in organizations. I’m betting that, if analysts paid more attention to the organization’s problem/desired outcome, more of their insights would be applied.

Lack of Insight

Back to the report content in the table above… Because the bottom line for readers in both reports is similar (e.g., clients will recognize the value of data analytics for addressing their existing problems), both executive summaries focus on models created through data analysis: identifying fraudsters in Report A and predicting customer conversion in Report B.

In the remainder of both executive summaries, consultants supported their bottom line with selected details. Both provided some high-level content about their models in executive friendly language. They wisely omitted any detailed modeling information. That detail appeared within the body of the report. An executive reader could assign an in-house expert to review it but didn’t have to slog through it him/herself!

Consultants in both cases also highlighted a “sexy” finding in the executive summary: identification of an extreme and convicted fraudster in Report A and a dollar amount– estimated but positive–for the client’s ROI in Report B.

4. Organize and format your content for maximum reading efficiency

If the bottom line is complex, you must carefully implement effective organization and formatting techniques in your executive summary. Good Copy, Bad Copy consultants recommend:

  • Creating sub-headings is useful if your bottom line has multiple parts.
  • Using bullet points helps readers scan a list of short content items.
  • Limiting yourself to one page is more likely to achieve reader commitment.

I would add: Supporting important points with visual displays whenever possible. Compared to words alone, the image below is far more efficient in making Florence Nightingale’s point that most soldiers in the Crimean War died of preventable diseases (displayed in gray). data viz Nightingale-mortality

5. Edit carefully

Your content should be front and center. But it won’t be if your writing style or mechanics are not what your audience expects. If your style is too formal (or informal) or your subjects and verbs don’t agree in number, readers may focus on your writing instead of your content. Because not all readers have the same expectations, it’s easier to edit for readers you know well. For instance, while most readers don’t notice passive voice at all, a few are downright offended by it. If you know your readers well, edit your word choices with them in mind.

At a minimum, make sure you, or a qualified colleague, remove all non-standard spelling/typos and inconsistencies in your document. They reduce your authority. And that’s not going to help you persuade your readers to do anything not obviously beneficial to them.

Evaluating a Complete Executive Summary

Let’s look at a complete executive summary. I’ve chosen one somewhat randomly titled “Economic Impacts of the Louisiana Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit” prepared in 2015.

  • Writer: consultants at HR&A Advisors, Inc. in New York, NY
  • Readers: clients who commissioned the report were Louisiana Film and Entertainment Association (LFEA) and Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA)
  • Bottom line message: the Credit has had a positive economic and unclear fiscal impact on the state

As background, I should note the report is 69 pages long with five major sections:

  1. Introduction (pp. 7-11)
  2. The Louisiana Motion Picture and Television Industry (pp. 13-25)
  3. Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism in Louisiana (pp. 26-32)
  4. Economic Impact Analysis (pp. 33-41)
  5. Fiscal Impacts of Production Spending and Motion Picture- and Television-Induced Tourism (pp. 42-43)

It also includes a technical (pp. 44-50) and a general (pp. 51-68) appendix, as well as disclaimers (p. 69). (If you’re interested, access the complete report.)

Clearly, the report’s length made an executive summary a requirement. As you can see below, the executive summary itself occupies roughly 1 and 1/3 pages (664 words).

If the writers had shared their draft with me before sending it to the intended readers (the clients who commissioned the report), I would offer the following observations.

My first point is that the content of most interest to readers is not at the beginning. Instead, it appears under the heading, “Summary of Findings.”  The heading is definitely helpful in pointing readers to what they want.  However, why place two full paragraphs of detail before the information of most interest to readers? To make matters worse, the first paragraph provides no information that would be new to the intended readers. Instead, it seems to be directed at a different audience. That’s a signal it doesn’t belong first in the executive summary.

The second paragraph may provide information that would be useful to some intended readers. But its primary value is as a means of organizing the bottom line about findings.

That brings me to my second point: the content of most interest is not organized for efficient comprehension.  You may object by noting the writers used bullet points. In this case, however, those bullets signify nothing more than a little white space at the beginning of a paragraph would. Readers have to read every word of every bullet in order to get the meaning.

Consider how much more impact the bottom line would have if it looked something like what I created below in a revised version of the original executive summary, which is half the length of the original (329 words).

In the revised version, I organized the bottom line findings to make them easier to scan. The second and third paragraphs now begin with the bottom line of the content that follows. (Think topic sentences.) Plus, I highlighted specific findings in a table with bullets and parallel content/form.

Note I also created some content at the beginning as my guidance above recommends. The document now describes a problem (i.e., impact of the Credit is undocumented) and a desired outcome (i.e., measurements of impact will determine the Credit’s value). I hope my readers agree that the revised version is more executive friendly.

As always, your comments are welcomed.

Research Sources

Here are some sources that support my guidance on writing executive summaries.

Clayton, J. (2003). Writing an executive summary that means business.Harvard Management Communication Letter, 6, 3-4.

Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.

Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.

Roach, J., Tracy, D., & Durden, K. (2007). Integrating business core knowledge through upper division report composition. Business Communication Quarterly, 70, 431-449.

Van Nus, M. (1999). Business genres and their corporate context. Document Design, 1, 187-197.

Yeung, L. (2007). In search of commonalities: Some linguistic and rhetorical features of business reports as a genre. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 156-179.

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