If you write long documents, you probably need to write executive summaries, whether you are in banking, real estate, insurance, manufacturing, law, education, or another type of organization. The questions and answers below will help you ensure your executive summaries are relevant and useful.
What is an executive summary?
An executive summary is a brief section at the beginning of a long report, article, recommendation, or proposal that summarizes the document. It is not background and not an introduction. People who read only the executive summary should get the essence of the document without fine details.
The executive summary of your 4-page, 10-page, or 30-page report is the version you would relate to the VP of your division while taking the elevator to the 30th floor or walking to the parking lot with him or her. It's the core of your document.
What belongs in the executive summary?
As a 30-second or a one-minute version of the entire report, the executive summary should answer the reader's questions in brief.
For a report or an article, the executive summary might answer these questions:
- Briefly, what is this about?
- Why is it important? [or] Why was it undertaken?
- What are the major findings or results?
- What more is to be done? [or] How will these findings be applied?
For a proposal or a recommendation, the summary might answer these questions:
- Briefly, what is this about?
- What do you propose or recommend?
- Why do you propose it?
- What is the next step?
How can I possibly summarize a 30-page report in a 30-second summary?
It can be challenging! But people do it all the time. Here is a 99-word executive summary of an internal audit report written for company executives:
Scope and objective: Internal Audit performed a review of business activities at the Blue River Plant to determine the level of compliance with established policies and procedures.
Findings and recommendations: The audit identified two areas that require improvement: (1) the level of documentation for inventory adjustments, cycle counts, and credit memos; and (2) the use of existing forms and reports that support business processes. The report contains two high-priority and three medium-priority recommendations. (See Table 1, page 2.) [You might list recommendations here or in a table.]
Management response: Management accepted the findings and has developed action plans to implement the recommendations. Internal Audit will track the implementations.
Getting started is hard enough. How can I write a summary before I begin?
You don't need to struggle over the executive summary at the beginning of the writing process. Even though it appears at the beginning of the document, the executive summary is normally written last, when you are certain about the contents of the document.
If you need someone to edit or proofread your reports, please contact my partner, Scribendi. I don't provide editorial services, but Scribendi is fast and professional.
What are common mistakes writers make in executive summaries?
1. Repeating the content of the executive summary almost verbatim near the beginning of the report. Repetition loses readers.
2. Providing too much background in the summary. Background belongs in a background section or an introduction--not in the summary.
3. Providing too much detail in the summary. Details belong in the body of the document.
4. Using different terms in the executive summary from those in the report. If the summary mentions findings, the report should include findings--not observations. If the summary cites results, the report should describe results--not outcomes.
5. Having a mismatch in content. Whatever the executive summary highlights must be included in the report. Likewise, the report should not contain major points that did not appear in the summary.
6. Including too little or too much in the executive summary. Executive summaries should run from one paragraph to one page, covering only the essential findings, results, or recommendations.
7. Repeating the executive summary almost verbatim in the conclusion. If a report contains a conclusion, it should be a wrap-up that drives home the main points--not an executive summary that highlights them.
Final question: What tips would you add on how to write an executive summary?
Good and poor examples of executive summaries
This is a GOOD example from an Accounting & Finance assignment.
This report provides an analysis and evaluation of the current and prospective profitability, liquidity and financial stability of Outdoor Equipment Ltd. Methods of analysis include trend, horizontal and vertical analyses as well as ratios such as Debt, Current and Quick ratios. Other calculations include rates of return on Shareholders Equity and Total Assets and earnings per share to name a few. All calculations can be found in the appendices. Results of data analysed show that all ratios are below industry averages. In particular, comparative performance is poor in the areas of profit margins, liquidity, credit control, and inventory management.
The report finds the prospects of the company in its current position are not positive. The major areas of weakness require further investigation and remedial action by management.Recommendations discussed include:
improving the average collection period for accounts receivable·
improving/increasing inventory turnover·
reducing prepayments and perhaps increasing inventory levels
The report also investigates the fact that the analysis conducted has limitations. Some of the limitations include:
forecasting figures are not provided nature and type of company is not known nor the current economic conditions data limitations as not enough information is provided or enough detail i.e. monthly details not known results are based on past performances not present
methods of analysis
Recommendations (note that conclusions and recommendations can be bulleted)
Limitations of the report.
Excerpt from Woodward-Kron, R. (1997) Writing in Commerce: a guide to assist Commerce students with assignment writing, (Revised edition), Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, The University of Newcastle.
This is a GOOD example of an executive summary from a marketing report.
This is a POOR example of an executive summary from a marketing assignment
Every time a business or consumer purchases products or services they display forms of buyer behaviour that are influenced by many factors. The following report looks at the fast food industry and will analyse four McDonalds’ key products and services.It highlights what type of consumer buying or business buying behaviours are displayed in the purchase of a product or service and explains why each behaviour may occur. This enables a conclusion to be drawn from applying theory to reality. Although a full comprehension of buying behaviour is impossible, since everyone is an individual, it is useful to reflect on common behaviours and attempt to divide behaviours in types and stages. Even McDonalds, a leader in marketing cannot always predict consumer behaviour.
Background to problem
Outlines what information the report deals with but FAILS to provide a summary of the results gained, conclusions drawn and recommendations made. These are the functions of an executive summary and are absent in this example.
The information in this executive summary is vague rather than summarising what the report found.
© Copyright 2000
Comments and questions should
be directed to Unilearning@uow.edu.au