Authors of executive summaries often present a dry, top-line view of a report’s information. Taking a marketing approach to writing your executive summary—thinking of the CEO as one of the most significant consumers of your information—can improve the chances that your ideas will produce the action you want.
Writing an Executive Summary is Like Marketing to your CEO
The purpose of an executive summary is not just to provide an overview of the longer report; it has the dual purpose to persuade the reader to delve further to take action. Follow these five steps to “market” your idea to the CEO through your executive summary:
1. Share your “aha moment” first.
Don’t wait until the end of the summary to share the best of your findings. You are, after all, trying to convince your reader that there is something worthwhile attached. Newspaper headlines start with the most important point first; what reporters call the lead. Use this same principle when writing to the CEO and higher management. They don’t want to read a report that you felt you had to write. They want to read about what you’ve discovered that can excite growth or change for the company. After briefly introducing the purpose of the report, share your insights.
Example: “After completing thorough research on the competitive environment for our upcoming strategic planning cycle, our advisory board has discovered three areas of opportunity. The area that will secure the greatest gain for XYZ Company is to organize and improve our marketing to our business to business customers. With the addition of limited resources, the upside is increased revenue upwards of $500,000 annually.”
2. Briefly, explain the opportunities you’ve discovered, in order of priority.
Connect these opportunities to the goals and mission of the organization to allow the reader to make critical connections. As the author of the report, you are intimately involved in the details and make unconscious connections between the opportunities you’ve found and how it will affect the company. Remember that your readers are thinking along different lines, but they are parallel with the goal of improving the company. The most motivating connections are those made to the company’s mission and goals, so don’t leave to chance that your reader will make them as you have. Specify the connection in your writing.
Example: “For the past three years, XYZ Company has attempted to grow their consumer base through new markets, innovation, and engagement. Based on these goals the report attached will detail our opportunities in two areas:
- Developing our business to business segment nationally
- Sourcing and installing a knowledge management system that will capture new product ideas and improvements from employees and customers
These two actions will position the company for growth over the next three years as we engage a new market segment and the innovation of our current employees and customers. Through the knowledge management software, we can more efficiently capture ideas, test them, and bring them to market.”
3. Make a connection to competitive advantage.
Upper management usually eats, breathes, and sleeps competitive advantage. If they are trying to figure out how to make the company stronger in the competitive environment, then you can connect your summary to this need and improve the persuasive nature of your writing.
Example: “XYZ Company has set industry best practices for hiring the best talent. Taking the next step to marshal the innovation of our workforce, and our loyal customers helps us bring new product ideas to the market ahead of our competition. The business to business segment for XYZ Company has been stagnant due to the need for product adjustments that allows our current mix to better fit what our business segment seeks. In the attached report, you will find a proposed test of gathering employee and customer ideas in the vein of making our products more business to business friendly.”
4. Briefly, identify the resources needed to accomplish your recommendations.
There is no mention of the exact cost of the enterprise software system proposed in the example for a reason—that level of specifics does not belong in an executive summary. However, you would be remiss not mentioning the cost, in general terms, and directing the reader to the specific cost/benefit section that you’ve detailed in the attached report. In this the section, it’s critical to anticipate objections. The CEO will not only wonder about costs, but other resources like people and time as well, so address them briefly.
Example: “The proposed test is an acknowledgment of the need to begin the knowledge management process immediately. In the report attached, you will find a timetable and costs for sourcing and integrating an enterprise software system phased over the next three years. Side by side, the report compares the benefits of installing such as system. In addition to the cost of the system, the following resources are needed:
- Project manager in IT to oversee the project
- Software system that includes support to manage the installation and training
With these two criteria, XYZ Company will not need to add any personnel to our payroll.
No additional resources are needed at this time to bolster marketing to the business to business segment. All marketing projects will be prioritized to focus attention on this segment. As part of the business to business marketing effort, the Director of Marketing has agreed to supervise the knowledge management test mentioned above.”
5. Include a call to action.
It’s time to “ask for the sale” from your reader. In this short section, it’s important to direct the reader to the full report. You are not asking for approval of the idea here as the details are attached. The reader might forward the report for review from Accounting or another department, or he/she might delve further on his/her own. So it is up to you to be very clear about how you want the reader to proceed.
Example: “The advisory board has set a meeting next Tuesday to review the details with you and the Directors of Accounting, IT, HR, and Marketing. A copy of this report has been sent to each department head for review. The advisory board looks forward to your acceptance of the meeting request and a lively discussion next Tuesday of the details.”
With the addition of transitions between sections, the example executive summary would be approximately 1-1/2 pages. This page range is appropriate for a full report with some data involved. Some executive summaries review routine progress; to show sales numbers, for example. The five steps above still apply, but would result in a different form.
- Business to business inquiries are up by 5%
- New products account for 9% of total revenue, up from 7% last month
- Focus outside sales people by region to continue to increase B2B inquiries
- Develop new sales materials for new products
- B2B customers welcoming
- Salespeople have documented conversations that XYZ is taking a more collaborative approach to meeting these customers’ specific needs
- Some territories do not have many B2B customers. Reallocate efforts in these territories to offer more customer support to current accounts
- Changes to incentives for affected sales people are necessary
The report is attached for review.”
This type of executive summary does require more thought than attaching a summary spreadsheet. It is, however, a fantastic way to showcase the ideas and recommendations of your department.
One last note:
Executive summaries should not include any new information. If it’s not in the report, it doesn’t belong in the summary. In the case above, the author would need to annotate the spreadsheet to highlight the information that results in the recommendations. Making the link between recommendations and data is due diligence that’s expected of you, the author, from the CEO.
If you are interested in professional development for your team, take a look at the training topics we provide through Intentional Growth Strategies.
What has been your experience writing executive summaries? Let’s discuss it.