How to write an executive summary

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
  • THE BOTTOM LINE

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.)

What place does empathy have in business writing?

What place does empathy have in business writing?

All the places. All. Of. Them.

If your writing isn’t empathetic to your readers’ needs, you’ve failed. End of story.

Who are you writing for? YOU?

All those bad, waffly, long-winded, not-fit-for purpose documents you see at work? Those are the result of writers writing to satisfy their own needs.

Don’t believe me?  How about these needs writers have:

  • the need to look good in their role
  • the need to come across like they know what they’re doing
  • the need to “do it right”
  • the need to show evidence of enough work
  • the need to sound knowledgeable
  • the need to sound “professional”
  • the need to not sound stupid

See what I mean?

Those are very real drivers, and I believe they are the root cause of most bad business writing.

But. If you switch your focus to your readers’ needs and write for them, not for you, magic happens.

What happens when you think about your readers

I’m talking about the kind of magic that happens when you:

  • Give your readers the bottom line up front, instead of making them look for it.
  • Omit those sections that no one ever reads, but that are there because they’ve always been done like that (or just push them further back, like to the appendices, if you need them there to cover butts).
  • Answer your readers’ questions before you tell them all the stuff you want them to know.
  • Acknowledge the fact that business readers skim-read, and then write to support that behaviour (headings, bullets, tables, white space)

We’ve been lying to ourselves

For such a long time we’ve tried to believe work and emotions are separate. But we do so much work on “soft skills” and emotional intelligence these days. We know those are vital!

We spend millions of dollars building empathetic leaders.

Can we PLEASE bring some of that knowing to our writing at work?

Writing for outcomes part 3 – tools for document structure

OK, so you’ve taken care of your up-front framing, and you’ve started to drill down to the clarity you need to write an amazing, fit-for-purpose document that’s gonna help you take over the universe.

But now you’ve got to the real guts of it:  what do you actually write??? (Press play for dramatic sound effect.)

Why is writing so hard?

So here’s the thing.  You know your stuff.  And that’s both a blessing and a curse, because

  1. you know everything your reader needs to know, but
  2. YOU KNOW FAR MORE THAN YOUR READER NEEDS TO KNOW!

And you really want your reader to know all that, too.  Which is a mistake.

Because let me be clear: the more words you use, the weaker the message.

Yes, I said it.  The key to good writing is to write less.  The more words you use—the more text on a page, the more you think in someone’s general direction—the more likely they are to miss your point.  Your bottom line.  Your slap in the face.  Or kick in the ass.  Or pat on the back (I thought I’d better add in a warm fuzzy—apparently my violent alter-ego is writing today).

Filtering through everything you know and want to say—and stripping back to only the key points—is the real challenge.

A process for stripping back

First of all, read and follow the steps I gave you in part 1.  Then part 2.  There’s stuff in there you need to produce before you follow this process.

Once you’ve nailed that, do this:

  1. DUMP – get that shit out of your head. Brain dump.    Sketch, purge, freewrite, list, use Post-its.  Do whatever you need to do, to get your thinking outside of your head.  Because outside is where you can work with it.
  2. CHUNK – take that messy dump and group it together into chunks of related info. (If you wanna feel really cool, call this a thematic analysis.)
  3. LABEL – describe each of those chunks of info. But don’t use one-word labels.  Describe the chunk, like ‘How we got here’, ‘What we found’, ‘How we can fix the problem’.  These will become your headings.  And your readers will love them!
  4. FILTER – using the purpose and the primary reader you identified in part 2, look at each beautifully labelled chunk and ask Does my reader need to know THIS for my document to achieve its purpose? Now here’s the gold (I love this. I’m excited.  Can you tell?). If your answer is:
    • YES – put it in! YUSS!
    • NO – leave it out! DUH.
    • MAYBE / I’M NOT SURE / SOME READERS NEED IT – then either mention it, summarise it, point the reader to where they can find it outside of the document, or push it to the appendices. When in doubt, go to the appendix.  It’s like magic.  All the evidence that you know your stuff and you’ve done a shitload of work and you’re worth your weight in gold, without losing your reader.
  5. ORDER – look at the chunks you have left and put them in order based on what’s most important to YOUR READER.

Now you have a plan!

Some people might call it an outline.  But that sends way too many of us back into PTSD-like flashbacks from our university days.  So let’s just call it a plan.  A map, maybe.

That plan means you can now write.  With ease and clarity.  Without second-guessing yourself and angsting over what to say or what not to say.  It means you can write fast and that’s good on every level (read here for how good writing saves money).

Your extra set of steak knives

My favourite thing about this process is this: it gives you confidence.  It’s one of the most common comments I get from participants in my trainings: I feel confident now.  I know what I’m doing.  I can relax. (Press play for a heavenly chorus celebrating your  amazingness.)

And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.  Now write!

Writing for outcomes – how to structure a business document Part 1

People are always asking me for templates. Have you got a report template, Shelly? A business case template, Shelly? A template that will save all the woes of the world, Shelly?

I’ll spare you the clichés about length of string and teaching men how to fish: I DON’T DO TEMPLATES.

Templates are only good if they’re designed for a specific purpose. There is no such thing as ONE magical template for any kind of document.

But we do have some really clear insights into reader behaviour. And from that, we can build a strong, successful, fit-for-purpose document structure.

What readers want

As humans, when we interact with text, we’re subconsciously looking for 3 things.

  1. What’s this about?
  2. Is it relevant to me?
  3. What’s the bottom line?

The importance of the executive summary or up-front framing

If you can answer those 3 questions before you do anything else in a business document, you’ve got your reader in the palm of your hand. They’re hooked. They’re engaged. And they’ll keep reading (or at least scanning through). It’s like mad-genius-evil-mastermind-writing-ninja material – so use your powers for good.

Answering those 3 questions is the basic formula for an executive summary. Of course, you can add more – but those are the bare minimum. If you don’t want to use an executive summary, make sure those 3 questions are answered in your introduction (or background, or scope, or whatever heading your douchebag template tells you is the starting point for saving the planet).

Let’s test this concept – what do you want as a reader?

Picture yourself going to your car and finding a piece of paper under the windscreen wiper.

(Note: Your version may contain less profanity. Whatever floats your boat.)

  1. What the f*ck is this? You wonder.

(You pick it up and see a company logo – it’s a flyer, not a ticket, thank f*ck)

  1. What are they selling? You wonder.

(There are pictures of food. It’s a restaurant. You’ve been known to eat occasionally. There’s potential here.)

  1. So are the prices any good? You wonder.

(That’s the bottom line – now that I know what they have to offer and that I’m interested, this is the deciding factor. Let’s say they’re cheap AF and sound worth trying so we have a happy ending to our scenario. You’re welcome.)

The rest of the document structure depends on content and purpose.

In a nutshell: the rest of your document needs to be structured in terms of what is most relevant to your reader, and then what they need to know so that you can achieve your purpose. Note the difference here – it’s not about what you want them to know – it’s about what they need to know from where they sit. Those can be vastly different things.

In fact, that warrants more discussion. Here’s Part 2!