An executive summary is a brief overview of a document’s purpose, results, and conclusions condensed for the quick reading of an executive or manager. It is placed at the beginning of a longer report or proposal and summarizes specific aspects of its content. The reader of the summary is usually not interested in the technical details of a project but is instead interested in costs, marketing, productivity, or efficiency.
Executive Summaries vs. Abstracts
Executive summaries and abstracts are similar, but an executive summary is typically longer. It usually runs about one or two double-spaced pages (or about five percent of the length of the full report), while an abstract is usually only six to eight sentences. An executive summary is geared to executives, managers, or investors, while an abstract is intended for an academic audience. An executive summary stresses results or conclusions, but an abstract may give equal time to problem definition, methods, results, and conclusions.
As an accompaniment to a report, an executive summary shares the report’s formal tone and emphasis on direct, clear, concise, specific language. The summary should be original: don’t copy and paste sentences from the full report. To keep the word count down, omit lengthy transitions and examples. Avoid highly technical language, and briefly define any technical terms you must use.
Introduce the Problem
Omit an elaborate introduction; however, you may choose to open with an introductory sentence designed to capture the reader’s attention. An eye-catching introduction that establishes a problem can be especially effective when your purpose is to persuade—perhaps you want investors to buy into a business plan, or you want executives to make a change in policy. Begin with a clear idea of what your summary can accomplish, then craft your introductory sentence.
Ex. Waiting weeks for an appointment or standing in a long line to get help is discouraging, but if the University Writing Center can’t recruit more consultants soon, that’s where our Aggie writers will be—frustrated and looking elsewhere for advice.
Once you have introduced the problem, hopefully with a bit of flair, detail it and explain how addressing it introduces an improvement or benefit. Use specifics whenever possible.
Ex. In 2009, the University Writing Center employed 45 consultants and helped 7,000 Aggies in one-on-one consultations. To reach our target of 14,000 consultations, we need to recruit and train 50 more consultants per year (as achieved by Large State University, where they employ 90 consultants and serve 12,000 students). We have the budget to pay 50 more consultants, but typically hire only 25 qualified consultants per year out of 50 candidates. While we must increase our hires, we cannot afford to decrease our hiring standards. Thus, we ought to increase out hiring pool by at least 50%.
Sell the Solution
Once you have established a problem, present the solution. If the original report explains how the problem was addressed (methods) and if methods were a significant factor in coming up with a solution or of particular importance to executive readers, then briefly describe them. If, for example, you are suggesting a change in recruiting methods, you might want to explain the steps you took to discover the most effective methods.
You need to sell your solution, so include as many specifics as you can rather than generalizations. (Ex. “The improved distribution plan should result in a 25% increase in sales for the coming year” rather than “We’re optimistic about the future.”) Don’t gloss over any potential problems or limitations; instead, briefly explain how these issues are being addressed or can be minimized. Also, don’t include anything the report doesn’t specifically cover.
Close the Deal
End with explicit recommendations based on the document’s results. This section will probably make up the bulk of the summary because ultimately what concerns the executive reader is results and effects on the organization. It’s important to continue including specific figures in the recommendations section.
Ex. On the basis of our analysis, we recommend that the University Writing Center take the following steps:
- produce and distribute a promotional video that outlines the benefits of working as a writing consultant
- increase the visibility of the employment opportunities on our website
- advertise positions through targeted bulk email to qualified students
The modest outlay of $350 to cover consultant labor and promotional materials is estimated to bring in approximately 50-60 new applications per year.
Make sure your executive summary includes all the pertinent information. Think about what an executive would need to know in order to make a decision about changing a policy, undertaking an action, or spending money and then provide that information as specifically and concisely as you can.