For the love of all that is right and good, PLEASE DO NOT WRITE YOUR EXECUTIVE SUMMARY FIRST!

Here’s why.

  1. The executive summary is the only part of a report you can guarantee will get read. So it needs to be the most powerful and well-written part. The end.
  2. The executive summary needs to be written when your thinking is the most clear (and that happens towards the end of the writing process). It makes me want to cry when I hear people being taught to write your executive summary first as a way of getting your thinking clear and planning the rest of the document. Umm, no!
  3. The executive summary should repeat some key points, phrases, and statements from the body of the document. You can copy and paste them – you do not need to rewrite! The repetition is reassuring to a reader. It adds credibility. Don’t be fooled that the executive summary is only for executives or decision makers. It’s for them yes, AND every other reader. I mean, think about it – does anyone ever skip the executive summary because they’re not a decision maker? Duh.

OK, rant over.

Now the how to.

Modern business writing doesn’t follow many of the traditional conventions you might have had drilled into you. Modern business contexts are more agile, and documents need to be, too.

That means documents that are stripped back and lean – there’s no room for fat, waffle, fluff (or anything else you might want to call it – I’m talking about the stuff that we all know no one reads, but we put it in documents because that’s the way it’s always been done).

So if we apply that thinking to the executive summary, and the executive summary is the only part of a report we can guarantee will be read, then we can’t put anything into that summary that’s not strictly necessary.

How to write an executive summary

Step 1

Know what your report needs to achieve, and which readers it needs to work for the most so that can happen.

Step 2

List the MAIN questions those readers will need to have answered for the report to be successful. Make those questions into headings.

Step 3

Find (in your report) the key points (at a high level only) that address those questions. Copy and paste them under each heading.

Step 4

Make sure the first line or paragraph tells your readers:

  • what the report’s about
  • who it’s for

Step 5

Go over what you’ve got with a lens of information at a glance, not traditional paragraphs and narrative. Your executive summary MUST have headings, bullets, a high-level table or visual, white space. Do not make your executive summary a solid wall of text or paragraphs with no textual differentiation.

Step 6

Slap that puppy at the front of your report, BEFORE the contents page or any definitions or lists of acronyms etc. Make it the first page after the title page if there is one.

Voila. A professional executive summary.

Just like that.

(You’re welcome.)