Write an effective executive summary

White Rabbit looking at pocket watch from Alice in Wonderland
…nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Illustration: John Tenniel. Shutterstock image.

For technical writers, the executive summary is one of the most challenging aspects of a report to a client. A good executive summary contains everything the busy executive needs to make a decision or take the recommended action with confidence. And it all needs to fit on two pages.

Most people simply don’t have time to read a long technical report. If the title looks interesting, they’ll check out the abstract and/or executive summary to see whether there’s any point in reading further. However, many people will not read beyond the executive summary.

Because the executive summary must contain all the important information in so few words, the writer should wait until the report is complete before writing it. Writing the rest of the report first will help you develop and solidify your understanding of the topic. That will also help you avoid burying the lede.

What is an executive summary?

In some ways, the executive summary is similar to an abstract. Both summarize the contents of a technical report in a highly condensed form. But an abstract is for a technical person who wants to know the what, why, and how of a research program. That person will likely read the whole report if the abstract piques his or her interest.

By contrast, an executive summary is for the high-level decision maker. The executive is probably too busy to read the rest of the report—that’s what subordinates are for.

The executive summary is not a “teaser” for the report itself. That is, don’t refer the reader to the report for further details. If the executive needs to know something to make the decision, it needs to be in the executive summary.

Some executives have a technical background, but many do not. In any case, the executive’s focus is on running the business, not on technical details. Try to avoid using acronyms and specialized technical terms in the executive summary. If you must use them, define them.

In writing the executive summary, you may find it easiest to start at the end: the decision or action you recommend. Everything else will build up to that.

Getting started

It makes sense to introduce the executive summary with a little background on your client, but don’t get carried away. One thing I almost always edit out of my students’ executive summaries is an extensive description of the company and its history. While this information may be interesting, it isn’t useful to the intended reader, who already knows all about it. Company history is helpful only when it leads directly to the decision or actions at the end of the executive summary.

For example, if the company is a market leader in electronic instrumentation and your recommendations will help it maintain its market position, that’s relevant. But it doesn’t matter that it all started in somebody’s garage in 1956, so leave that out.

Because the primary reader is an executive, it’s helpful if you make the business case for your recommended decision or action. Put it directly in terms of dollars or in terms that are easy to convert to dollars: labor hours, BTUs, potential customers, reduction in lost-time accidents.

Where possible, be quantitative rather than qualitative. For example, if the product is a medical device for heart patients, state how many people are diagnosed with the relevant heart condition each year. That’s the size of the potential market. Or you might estimate how much energy the company would save (as a percent or in kilowatt-hours) by making the changes you suggest.

Ideally, your first paragraph or two will make a compelling business case for following your recommendations.

Building the reader’s confidence

Now that you’ve made the case for your recommendations, you need to provide a solid justification for them. Without getting bogged down in a lot of technical detail, describe the main performance requirements for your product and show that it meets them.

If your product isn’t ready to market just yet, be honest about what remains to be done. What improvements are necessary? Would a few tweaks make the difference between good and great? Could you make the assembly a little more efficient? Include these items in your recommendations.

And finally…

Once you’ve completed your draft, let it sit for a day or two. Then read over it to make sure everything leads up to your recommended actions or decisions. If it doesn’t, delete it. Verify that you’ve provided a sufficient basis for all your recommendations. Lastly, edit your text to fit it within two pages.