Executive summary: how to wow your readers

The executive summary is the most important part of any business report. Why? Because it's the one part of the report everyone will read. For some people it’ll be the only thing they read. Actually, make that most people.

For your report to have the wow factor, your executive summary needs to work hard. It needs to be clear. Punchy. Short. Attention-grabbing. And a pleasure to read. At the same time, it needs to be powerfully persuasive. Because, after all, the purpose of any report is to persuade your reader to see the world your way.

Better still, the purpose of any report is to get your reader to do what you want them to do. (You are asking your reader to do something, aren’t you? If not, check out my last post: Report writing: be clear about what you want!)

Tough, eh?

To help you write a more powerful executive summary, here are my answers to the five most common questions people ask me about executive summaries.

1. How long should an executive summary be?

The size of your executive summary will depend on the size of your report. But even if your report's tens of thousands of words long, you'll probably want to keep your executive summary under a page. Often it’ll be no more than half a page. When it comes to giving your report some wow, short and punchy is best.

2. What should I include in my executive summary?

A big mistake many report writers make with the executive summary is focusing on the word ‘summary’. Instead, you should focus on the word ‘executive'.

Look up the word ‘executive’ in any dictionary. The definition will read something like ‘relating to having the power to make decisions’. For example, in a constitution, the 'executive' is the part of the government with the power to put policies into practice.

And just look at other familiar phrases containing the word ‘executive’:

Executive decision Executive power Executive order Executive chairman Chief executive officer

All these phrases have one thing in common - they connote the power to do things.

So when you’re thinking about your report’s executive summary, you need to be strategic. It's not simply a matter of cobbling together a potted precis of the rest of the report.

Instead, your executive summary should include all the information your reader needs if they’re going to do what you want them to do. No more, no less.

Let’s say you’re including a ‘Recommendations’ section in your report. The ‘Recommendations’ section is the part where you hit your reader with your big ask - the thing you want them to do - so you probably will want to include one. This section will be the first place to look for stuff to include in your executive summary.

3. Can I use sub-headings in an executive summary?

Absolutely! Even a short executive summary can benefit from sub-headings. Especially if they help your reader home in on the information they need to take the executive action you want.

So go ahead and use them! There’s no rule that says you can’t.

4. Can I use bullet points in my executive summary?

The best executive summaries invite the reader to go in, get what they need, and then get out. That way they can get on with taking the action you want them to take.

So, as with sub-headers, if bullet points help you further that purpose, go ahead and use ’em!

5. When should I write my executive summary?

You're probably tempted to leave your executive summary till last, right? After all, that way you won’t have to rework it if you change your mind about what’s going in the report.

But here's the thing. Even before you start writing your report, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s going in your executive summary. Why? Because you should have a very clear idea, from the outset, of the action you want your reader to take.

So consider writing your executive summary first. That way, you'll avoid falling into the trap of making it nothing more than, well, a summary. Starting with the executive summary will also cement in your own mind what it is you want to achieve with your report.

And that won't just make for a powerful executive summary your reader will love. Having a clear idea of where you're going before you write will make producing the whole report much quicker and easier. (If you worry you don't write fast enough, check out my previous post Writing speed: How long does it take to write something?)

Further reading about how to write an executive summary

If you’re looking for inspiration for your next executive summary, do check out Geoffrey James’s How to Write a Compelling Executive Summary. In this great article, the regular columnist for Inc gives you a basic template for writing your executive summary. Highly recommended!

Are you struggling to write an executive summary? Was this article helpful? Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions about writing an executive summary.