Put An Executive Summary to Work - and Make Sure it Gets Read!


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Time, time, time. Consider these numbers: the average executive spends 22 percent writing and reading memos, reports, letters. That equals eleven workweeks. And they are spending over 50 percent of their time either reading your communication or responding to it! So if you want the big cheese to read your report, make certain that your executive summary—written for that decision maker—sings. Here are the details.

Executive Summary

This stand-alone document is a synopsis of information in a report. A restatement of the most relevant points, it contains enough detail to inform the reader but concise enough to cover the topic's significance.

Though this is usually written last, it is placed before the report's introduction and summarizes the major points of the report. The executive summary can be five sentences or a page but usually no longer. Keep the image of a one-legged interview—meaning, equate how long you can stand on one leg to how long you can hold your reader's attention—in the back of your brain. Or use the recommendation from The Handbook of Technical Writing, by Brusaw, Alred and Oliu: the summary's length should be no more than ten-percent of the length of the report. Consider bullets and lists to help the reader quickly skim major points.

Most executive summaries contain four key sections: overview; methods; results and recommendations; and the conclusion. The order of the sections usually mirrors the sequence of the larger report. All executive summaries address readers’ needs for clarity about:

  • Key problems or concerns

  • Specific recommendations or solutions

  • Benefits to their business, customers or bottom line Use the chart below to guide the planning for your next executive summary:

    WHO is my reader? Key question: What do I know about my reader’s business and concerns?

    WHY was the report written or why did the even take place? Key question: How can I briefly summarize the purpose of the report?

    WHAT main points need to be included in the following areas?

  • Actions

  • Results or findings

  • Recommendations

  • Benefits Key Question: Which aspects/details are essential to help my reader understand my ideas?

    WHEN should recommendations be carried out? Key question: What timeframe can I suggest? OR What’s the best order for implementing the recommendations?

    HOW do my recommendations directly benefit my reader? Key question: Have I anticipated my reader’s needs, questions, and concerns?

    Even though e-mail is the communication vehicle in business today, professionals still need to deliver key information to senior management. An old standby—the executive summary—still remains an important document. What can be difficult is writing the darn thing. These tips should help you. One last task, once you finish drafting the executive summary, revise, revise, revise!

    This is an excerpt from Dr. Julie Miller’s fourth edition, Business Writing That Counts!

    Dr. Julie Miller is a business writing expert, consultant, author, speaker, trainer, and coach. Dr. Miller, founder of Business Writing That Counts!, works with corporations, organizations, educational institutions, and professionals to improve the quality of their writing. Visit her website at http://www.businesswritingthatcounts.com to sign up for her FREE e-newsletter and you’ll also receive her FREE E-mail Proofreading Checklist: 16 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Hitting ‘Send’.

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