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.)

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 2

In my trainings, structure is one of the most common things participants say they want help with. They hope I’m going to give them a standard report structure. *snort*  That’s like unicorn farts – would probably be really lovely but there’s no such thing.  Sorry bout it.

In part one I covered the upfront framing that –

  1. gives readers an incredibly satisfying experience, and
  2. engages the right audience.

But I promised more.  So let’s move from reader behaviour to a reader-centric document structure.

Let’s be very clear about how documents work

  1. You’re writing a document because you need to achieve something. An outcome.
  2. To achieve YOUR outcome, the document has to work for THEM – the reader.
  3. The upfront framing either engages or loses your reader (we’ve already covered this)
  4. The structure of the rest of the document determines its success (ie – YOUR outcome).
  5. Shall I say it again? Write for them.  Not for you.  That’s the only way you’re going to ultimately get what you’re after.

Purpose, purpose, bla, bla, bla

Any writing trainer worth their salt will tell you to identify the purpose of a document before you start writing.  This is true.  But I find purpose – both the word and the concept – problematic.

Firstly it’s overly and inappropriately used as a heading (how many documents have you read that have the heading purpose followed by a waffly, non-specific introduction??).

And second, when I ask people what the purpose of their document is, they give me answers like –

  • to inform… (for what purpose? We don’t tell people stuff for no reason)
  • to analyse… (documents don’t analyse things.  People do)
  • to define… (see above)
  • to describe… (see above above. For what purpose?)

None of which give a writer the drilled-down clarity we need to develop a fit-for-purpose structure.

Instead, I train people to ask 2 questions:

  1. What does this document need to ACHIEVE?
  2. If this document works, what will HAPPEN?

Both questions direct us to a tangible, observable action by our reader.

Know your audience, bla, bla, bla

Again, everyone tells us this.  And it’s true.  But what’s most common in business documents today is that we have multiple audiences, with differing needs.  So knowing that can make the writing process even more daunting and definitely not simple and clear.

How about this as an alternative: list all the readers of your document.  Who will access it?  Who will use it?  Who will sign off on it?  Who might need to refer to it?

Now look back at the solid outcome you identified with questions 1 & 2.

And ask the 3rd question:

  1. Who has the authority, ability, or position to make this document achieve its purpose?

Answer that and you’ve identified your primary readers.  They matter the most.  Write in a way that works for them, above anyone else.  (By the way – this also gives you the ability to push back when an approver wants a document written a certain way, but you know that won’t work for the end user.  Handy!)

Now create the headings/sections/chunks of your document

With clarity on outcome and readers of influence, you can now create a fit-for purpose structure.  I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell you what that structure looks like.  But again, unicorn farts.  From where YOU sit, with YOUR knowledge, expertise and insight, and with the new clarity about purpose and readers, YOU have all the pieces to the puzzle.  You can create a structure that will work best.

Ask yourself –

  • What does my primary reader need to know so I can get my desired outcome?
  • Does my primary reader need to know X (ie, any chunk of information) for my doc to achieve its purpose?

It’s all connected.

Want to know more?  Bring me in for a training.  I’ve got so much more!!!!