The executive summary is arguably the most important section of a report, but most people find it challenging. A common misconception is that it’s the same thing as an introduction, but that’s just part of it. So what is it, and how can you write a great one?
An executive summary is a brief outline of the main points of a report or other document. Its purpose is to concisely present the scope, methodology, conclusions and recommendations of the document. Its intended audience is an executive reader who may be too busy to read and analyze a long report. After reading the executive summary, the reader should have a decent grasp of the paper’s argument, so that he or she can use it as a guide to decision making. It should be right at the start of a document so the executive can simply open the front cover, quickly read it and understand the report.
How do you write a great one? Here are some characteristics of effective executive summaries:
- Conciseness. Typically, they are about five to ten percent of the length of the report. If you have a fifty-page report, your executive summary should only be two to five pages long at most. (Some experts argue for a limit of one page.)
- Comprehensiveness. Include the conclusions and recommendations of the report. Don’t save those for the end in hope of making a bigger impact; your reader might not make it that far!
- Clarity. They must be direct and straight to the point. Dive into the essential information without presenting supplementary material.
Consider the following structure:
- One paragraph of introduction that clearly states why and for whom the report was written –typically a client or your manager.
- One or two brief paragraphs explaining how the study or analysis was performed and why you chose that approach. You can also describe how your report is organized if that information will help the reader.
- One or two brief paragraphs stating the findings of your study and the next steps you recommend.
- A final paragraph explaining how accepting your conclusions and recommendations will benefit the reader.
Remember: all of the important points of your report should appear in the executive summary. It should stand alone and not merely introduce the longer document. Save your readers time by presenting everything they need to know – and leave everything else out!