How To
11 min

A Guide to Writing an Executive Summary + Examples

Reem Abouemera

October 1, 2022

Whether you're writing a business plan, scientific paper, grant proposal, business proposal, or any other formal document, chances are you'll be asked to include an executive summary. And even if you're not, it's still a good idea to include one— time is precious, after all, and attention spans are short.

Many people skip the executive summary because they don't know what to include, but with a little bit of planning, you can write one that's both informative and concise. Here's everything you need to know about writing an executive summary.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is a brief overview of the main points of a report. It's meant to give the reader a general sense of what the document is about without them having to read it. 

The goal is to provide enough information so the reader can make an informed decision without reading the rest of the report. In other words, a good executive summary should stand on its own.

How to write a good executive summary

Image Source

While executive summaries for different types of documents may vary slightly in content and format, there are some general guidelines you can follow to ensure yours is up to par.

1. A good executive summary grabs the reader’s attention and keeps them reading

Image Source

For starters, you want to make sure the opening of your executive summary is attention-grabbing and compels the reader to read on. One way to do this is by starting with a statistic or other relevant data point that paints a picture of your problem.

For example, if you're writing a report on the rising cost of healthcare, you might open with a statistic like "Healthcare costs have increased by X percent in the past year." This immediately sets the stage and gives the reader a reason to care about what's to come.

Don't head to the solution just yet—you'll want to spend a good chunk of the summary laying out the problem. This is where including data and statistics can help drive home your point. And even if you don't have any hard numbers to share, you should still take the time to clearly explain the issue at hand.

Picking up on the previous example, you could say:

"The rising cost of healthcare is an issue that affects us all. In the past year alone, healthcare costs have increased by X percent, putting a strain on both individuals and families. It's normal nowadays for people to have to make tough choices when it comes to their healthcare, like whether to pay for a doctor's visit or buy groceries. And with no end in sight, something needs to be done."

This gives the reader a better sense of the problem and its implications. Better yet, it sets you up nicely to describe the solution.

Pro Tip: Maintain the same level of engagement throughout the summary by using strong verbs and active language.

2. An executive summary should include the who, what, when, where, and how of the situation you’re addressing

If you want to make sure your summary is comprehensive, include the four Ws (and one H). In other words: Who is involved? What happened? When did it happen? Where did it take place? Why did it happen? And how did it happen?

Image Source

That way, you can be sure you're covering all the important bases and giving the reader a well-rounded picture of the situation without missing any key details.

For instance, if you're writing a business report or proposal, you could say:

“We are a global software company based in San Francisco. Our mission is to revolutionize how people manage their finances and pay their bills worldwide. Our customer base includes millions of individuals across more than 50 countries who use our products to keep track of their spending habits, set budgets, and make payments on time every month.

Our customers love our product because it allows them to easily see their financial history and make more informed decisions about their spending. However, due to issues with data quality management (DQM), some products have not been working properly for months at a time while we address this problem.

This issue has impacted our ability to complete new feature development; it's hard for us as developers or designers to work on new features when there are bugs that prevent users from using existing ones correctly."

This summary says a lot in just a few paragraphs. The reader knows who the company is, what they do, where they're based, and how many customers they have. We also learn about the company's problem and how it's impacting their business. All of this information is essential to understanding the context of the situation.

That's what an executive summary is all about—giving the reader a clear and concise overview of the situation so they can be fully informed before diving into the details.

3. Provide background information about your topic in a concise way

Image Source

A common mistake people make when writing executive summaries is including too much background information. Remember, the whole point of a summary is to be concise, so you should only include the most essential details.

Stick to the basics, and leave out any unnecessary information that adds fluff to your summary. Ideally, use research and statistics to illustrate the magnitude of the problem and support your claims. This will make your argument more convincing and give the reader a better sense of why this issue is important.

For example, if you're writing about heart disease, you could say:

"Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for one in every four deaths. Every year, about 610,000 people die from heart disease—that’s one death every minute. What’s more, this figure is only increasing. In fact, by 2030, it’s estimated that nearly one in three adults will suffer from some form of heart disease."

This paints a clear picture of the problem and its scope. The reader can see that this is a serious issue that must be urgently addressed.

Pro Tip: Conciseness also applies to your call-to-action (CTA). When your readers go through the executive summary, they should be able to identify what you want them to do next. Whether donating to a cause, approving a project, or signing a petition, don't forget to include a specific and clear CTA.

4. Keep the executive summary short but comprehensive

As you write your executive summary, it's important to keep its definition and purpose in mind. This summary is meant to be a brief overview of the situation, not a detailed report. Naturally, that means it needs to be short.

How long should an executive summary be? In general, it should be no more than one page, or about 10% of the total length of the report if it's more than ten pages. Any longer than that, and you run the risk of overwhelming the reader with too much information.

It can be tempting to include everything about your report in the executive summary, but resist the urge to do so. Instead, here's what you should be sure to include:

  • An overview of the problem and how it affects your organization/institution/community
  • The proposed solution and how it will solve the problem at hand
  • What the reader will gain from taking action (i.e., the benefits of implementing this solution, which could be anything from cost savings or increased efficiency to improved morale)
  • Why your proposed solution outshines other possible options
  • Next steps (i.e., your call-to-action)

If you cover these five points, you'll give the reader an easy-to-digest overview of the situation, paving the way for them to make an informed decision.

Pro Tip: Don't rush through writing the executive summary. Even though it's supposed to be brief, it must be well-written. It also sets the tone for the rest of the report, so you want to keep your writing style consistent with the rest of the report so readers can easily follow along without having to reorient themselves when they move from one section into another.

5. Write your executive summary last

Another common misconception about executive summaries is that they should be written first. In reality, it's usually best to write the executive summary last. Why? Because you can't accurately summarize something if you don't know what it is you're summarizing yet. 

Accordingly, it's easy to leave out important information or include irrelevant details if you write the summary before you've finished the report.

Readers will turn to the executive summary first, but that doesn't mean you should write it first. By writing it last, you can be sure that everything in the summary is relevant and accurate. This will help keep your readers engaged and prevent them from getting lost or confused as they move on to the rest of the report.

Pro Tip: If it's your first time writing an executive summary, it's a good idea to use a note-taking tool to jot down the main points of your report as you go. This way, you can refer back to these key points when ready to write the summary without having to flip through the entire report again.

6. Keep your executive summary objective

No matter what you’re writing about, objectivity can make or break an executive summary.

Image Source

Your executive summary should be void of any personal opinions or biases. It should simply present the facts as they are. Then, based on those facts, you can present your proposed solution—again, without any personal opinion or bias.

The goal is to give the reader an objective overview of the situation to make an informed decision. Including your personal opinions in the summary will skew the reader's perception of the situation and could lead them to make a decision that's not in their best interest.

To make sure you're being objective, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I using language that's neutral and free of emotion?
  • Am I sticking to the facts and avoiding speculation?
  • Am I presenting all sides of the issue fairly?
  • Am I keeping my personal opinions out of it?

If you can answer these questions with a resounding "yes," you're on the right track. Remember, the goal is to provide an objective overview of the situation, not to persuade the reader to see things your way.

7. Make sure your executive summary is easy to read

If there's one thing all executive summaries have in common, they need to be easy to read. This means keeping them brief and using clear, concise language and breaking up long paragraphs into shorter, more manageable chunks.

It also means writing the executive summary with a reader who doesn't have intimate knowledge of your topic in mind—no jargon, no acronyms, and no insider language. You want to make sure anyone who picks up your report will be able to understand what you're trying to say. 

If your readers need to spend ten minutes deciphering what you're trying to say, then you might need to rewrite your summary for clarity.

To do that, try using plain language and specific, concrete examples to illustrate your points. This will help make your writing more relatable and easier to understand.

8. Avoid information that requires further explanation

Finally, within your report, there's bound to be some information that requires further explanation but may not be important enough to include in your work (such as new data sets, for example).

Some people resort to adding these details into the executive summary, but that's not always the best idea. Why? Because including too much information upfront can overwhelm readers and make it difficult for them to follow along. 

Not to mention, you'll have to take up a lot of valuable space in your summary that could be used to present other, more important information.

Instead of adding these types of details to the executive summary, consider adding them as footnotes at the end of each section or, even better yet, saving them for appendices. That way, readers interested in that information can easily find it, but it won't be overwhelming for those who aren't.

It's time to put your skills to the test!

Writing an executive summary is one of the most important writing skills you can master. Borrow the eight tips we discussed in this guide and put them into practice the next time you're tasked with writing one. Before long, you'll be churning out executive summaries like a pro!

Plus, if you ever need an extra set of hands to push you, Copy.ai's writing assistant and its Summary Templates can create a high-quality executive summary for you in mere minutes. So why not give it a try? You might be surprised at how much time you end up saving.

Related Writing Tutorials:

How to write a press release
Guide to writing student recommendations

How to write a tagline
How to write a white paper
How to write a scholarship essay

How To
11 min

A Guide to Writing an Executive Summary + Examples

Reem Abouemera
October 1, 2022

Whether you're writing a business plan, scientific paper, grant proposal, business proposal, or any other formal document, chances are you'll be asked to include an executive summary. And even if you're not, it's still a good idea to include one— time is precious, after all, and attention spans are short.

Many people skip the executive summary because they don't know what to include, but with a little bit of planning, you can write one that's both informative and concise. Here's everything you need to know about writing an executive summary.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is a brief overview of the main points of a report. It's meant to give the reader a general sense of what the document is about without them having to read it. 

The goal is to provide enough information so the reader can make an informed decision without reading the rest of the report. In other words, a good executive summary should stand on its own.

How to write a good executive summary

Image Source

While executive summaries for different types of documents may vary slightly in content and format, there are some general guidelines you can follow to ensure yours is up to par.

1. A good executive summary grabs the reader’s attention and keeps them reading

Image Source

For starters, you want to make sure the opening of your executive summary is attention-grabbing and compels the reader to read on. One way to do this is by starting with a statistic or other relevant data point that paints a picture of your problem.

For example, if you're writing a report on the rising cost of healthcare, you might open with a statistic like "Healthcare costs have increased by X percent in the past year." This immediately sets the stage and gives the reader a reason to care about what's to come.

Don't head to the solution just yet—you'll want to spend a good chunk of the summary laying out the problem. This is where including data and statistics can help drive home your point. And even if you don't have any hard numbers to share, you should still take the time to clearly explain the issue at hand.

Picking up on the previous example, you could say:

"The rising cost of healthcare is an issue that affects us all. In the past year alone, healthcare costs have increased by X percent, putting a strain on both individuals and families. It's normal nowadays for people to have to make tough choices when it comes to their healthcare, like whether to pay for a doctor's visit or buy groceries. And with no end in sight, something needs to be done."

This gives the reader a better sense of the problem and its implications. Better yet, it sets you up nicely to describe the solution.

Pro Tip: Maintain the same level of engagement throughout the summary by using strong verbs and active language.

2. An executive summary should include the who, what, when, where, and how of the situation you’re addressing

If you want to make sure your summary is comprehensive, include the four Ws (and one H). In other words: Who is involved? What happened? When did it happen? Where did it take place? Why did it happen? And how did it happen?

Image Source

That way, you can be sure you're covering all the important bases and giving the reader a well-rounded picture of the situation without missing any key details.

For instance, if you're writing a business report or proposal, you could say:

“We are a global software company based in San Francisco. Our mission is to revolutionize how people manage their finances and pay their bills worldwide. Our customer base includes millions of individuals across more than 50 countries who use our products to keep track of their spending habits, set budgets, and make payments on time every month.

Our customers love our product because it allows them to easily see their financial history and make more informed decisions about their spending. However, due to issues with data quality management (DQM), some products have not been working properly for months at a time while we address this problem.

This issue has impacted our ability to complete new feature development; it's hard for us as developers or designers to work on new features when there are bugs that prevent users from using existing ones correctly."

This summary says a lot in just a few paragraphs. The reader knows who the company is, what they do, where they're based, and how many customers they have. We also learn about the company's problem and how it's impacting their business. All of this information is essential to understanding the context of the situation.

That's what an executive summary is all about—giving the reader a clear and concise overview of the situation so they can be fully informed before diving into the details.

3. Provide background information about your topic in a concise way

Image Source

A common mistake people make when writing executive summaries is including too much background information. Remember, the whole point of a summary is to be concise, so you should only include the most essential details.

Stick to the basics, and leave out any unnecessary information that adds fluff to your summary. Ideally, use research and statistics to illustrate the magnitude of the problem and support your claims. This will make your argument more convincing and give the reader a better sense of why this issue is important.

For example, if you're writing about heart disease, you could say:

"Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for one in every four deaths. Every year, about 610,000 people die from heart disease—that’s one death every minute. What’s more, this figure is only increasing. In fact, by 2030, it’s estimated that nearly one in three adults will suffer from some form of heart disease."

This paints a clear picture of the problem and its scope. The reader can see that this is a serious issue that must be urgently addressed.

Pro Tip: Conciseness also applies to your call-to-action (CTA). When your readers go through the executive summary, they should be able to identify what you want them to do next. Whether donating to a cause, approving a project, or signing a petition, don't forget to include a specific and clear CTA.

4. Keep the executive summary short but comprehensive

As you write your executive summary, it's important to keep its definition and purpose in mind. This summary is meant to be a brief overview of the situation, not a detailed report. Naturally, that means it needs to be short.

How long should an executive summary be? In general, it should be no more than one page, or about 10% of the total length of the report if it's more than ten pages. Any longer than that, and you run the risk of overwhelming the reader with too much information.

It can be tempting to include everything about your report in the executive summary, but resist the urge to do so. Instead, here's what you should be sure to include:

  • An overview of the problem and how it affects your organization/institution/community
  • The proposed solution and how it will solve the problem at hand
  • What the reader will gain from taking action (i.e., the benefits of implementing this solution, which could be anything from cost savings or increased efficiency to improved morale)
  • Why your proposed solution outshines other possible options
  • Next steps (i.e., your call-to-action)

If you cover these five points, you'll give the reader an easy-to-digest overview of the situation, paving the way for them to make an informed decision.

Pro Tip: Don't rush through writing the executive summary. Even though it's supposed to be brief, it must be well-written. It also sets the tone for the rest of the report, so you want to keep your writing style consistent with the rest of the report so readers can easily follow along without having to reorient themselves when they move from one section into another.

5. Write your executive summary last

Another common misconception about executive summaries is that they should be written first. In reality, it's usually best to write the executive summary last. Why? Because you can't accurately summarize something if you don't know what it is you're summarizing yet. 

Accordingly, it's easy to leave out important information or include irrelevant details if you write the summary before you've finished the report.

Readers will turn to the executive summary first, but that doesn't mean you should write it first. By writing it last, you can be sure that everything in the summary is relevant and accurate. This will help keep your readers engaged and prevent them from getting lost or confused as they move on to the rest of the report.

Pro Tip: If it's your first time writing an executive summary, it's a good idea to use a note-taking tool to jot down the main points of your report as you go. This way, you can refer back to these key points when ready to write the summary without having to flip through the entire report again.

6. Keep your executive summary objective

No matter what you’re writing about, objectivity can make or break an executive summary.

Image Source

Your executive summary should be void of any personal opinions or biases. It should simply present the facts as they are. Then, based on those facts, you can present your proposed solution—again, without any personal opinion or bias.

The goal is to give the reader an objective overview of the situation to make an informed decision. Including your personal opinions in the summary will skew the reader's perception of the situation and could lead them to make a decision that's not in their best interest.

To make sure you're being objective, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I using language that's neutral and free of emotion?
  • Am I sticking to the facts and avoiding speculation?
  • Am I presenting all sides of the issue fairly?
  • Am I keeping my personal opinions out of it?

If you can answer these questions with a resounding "yes," you're on the right track. Remember, the goal is to provide an objective overview of the situation, not to persuade the reader to see things your way.

7. Make sure your executive summary is easy to read

If there's one thing all executive summaries have in common, they need to be easy to read. This means keeping them brief and using clear, concise language and breaking up long paragraphs into shorter, more manageable chunks.

It also means writing the executive summary with a reader who doesn't have intimate knowledge of your topic in mind—no jargon, no acronyms, and no insider language. You want to make sure anyone who picks up your report will be able to understand what you're trying to say. 

If your readers need to spend ten minutes deciphering what you're trying to say, then you might need to rewrite your summary for clarity.

To do that, try using plain language and specific, concrete examples to illustrate your points. This will help make your writing more relatable and easier to understand.

8. Avoid information that requires further explanation

Finally, within your report, there's bound to be some information that requires further explanation but may not be important enough to include in your work (such as new data sets, for example).

Some people resort to adding these details into the executive summary, but that's not always the best idea. Why? Because including too much information upfront can overwhelm readers and make it difficult for them to follow along. 

Not to mention, you'll have to take up a lot of valuable space in your summary that could be used to present other, more important information.

Instead of adding these types of details to the executive summary, consider adding them as footnotes at the end of each section or, even better yet, saving them for appendices. That way, readers interested in that information can easily find it, but it won't be overwhelming for those who aren't.

It's time to put your skills to the test!

Writing an executive summary is one of the most important writing skills you can master. Borrow the eight tips we discussed in this guide and put them into practice the next time you're tasked with writing one. Before long, you'll be churning out executive summaries like a pro!

Plus, if you ever need an extra set of hands to push you, Copy.ai's writing assistant and its Summary Templates can create a high-quality executive summary for you in mere minutes. So why not give it a try? You might be surprised at how much time you end up saving.

Related Writing Tutorials:

How to write a press release
Guide to writing student recommendations

How to write a tagline
How to write a white paper
How to write a scholarship essay

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