Four tips for writing an executive summary that will actually get read
Summary - As a business becomes more complex, executives have less time to read the reports, emails and other written materials that regularly come across their desk. Getting to the point is key - but often a challenge. With good editing and practice, it can be done.
As our business becomes more complex, I have less and less time to read the reports, long- winded emails and other written materials that regularly come across my desk.
Because of this, I value when people get to the point quickly when they send me a written document of any kind. Tell me what’s important, why I should care and whether I need to do something.
If I want more detail, I can drill down myself or ask for more information.
As I explained in a recent blog about how to prepare a killer package for your board, I try to get my own reports and briefings down to one page.
Often it’s a challenge. But with good editing and practice, it can be done.
Here are four tips when writing your next executive summary and for condensing almost anything down to one page.
1. Lead with the main message and action items
A lot of reports and briefings are organized like a mystery novel with the ‘whodunit’ coming at the end. Management reports should be just the opposite.
Put the key messages and action items up front. For example, “We need to adjust X in product Y” or “There is a new competitor in the marketplace.”
Having identified the issue, you have to establish the relevance and impact - usually in one or two bullets or sentences. This information comes from your organizations defined KPIs. For example, "Customer complaints have increased" or "We are bleeding sales this quarter."
Finally, tell me what action needs to be taken. What are my choices? What decisions have to be made and when? And finally, state your position. Don’t leave out your recommendation.
2. Group information around the most important themes
In any presentation, it is important to identify what I call the ‘big beats’. These are the issues and data that continually stand out - the themes.
They will vary from report to report, but they are vital to content and presentation.
Organize your information around these ‘big beats’. Make them into headings that stand out.
The architecture of these headings (similar to a table of contents) should tell your story at a high level, so that someone who reads only the ‘big beats’ understands the essence of what you are saying.
The headings will help de-clutter your text which, in turn, should provide necessary detail or direct the reader to other sources if required.
3. Think graphically
To squeeze everything onto one page, you need to think about how you organize and present your information.
The reader’s eye usually goes first to the top left-hand corner of the page. So make sure your most important information appears here.
Then the eye usually scans to the right of the page and down from there. You need to provide visual guides to ensure information is consumed in a logical order.
This may require some experimentation. But try using different font sizes, colours, blocking or boxing text, highlighting text, or other graphic techniques.
One of the most successful techniques is using white space - lots of it! Giving the eye a visual breather increases the likelihood that the text will be read and understood.
4. Get over the fear of leaving something out
People provide too much information because they are afraid that they may leave out something important.
But if everything is important, then nothing is important.
If you, the subject matter expert, can’t pick out what is important, how am I supposed to do it?
Getting it down to one page shows me that you have thought about what’s important to me and our company.
If I have a question (and I usually do), I will ask. I know that there is a lot more detail behind what appears in the one-pager.
So lose the fear.
Shorter is better.
Allan Wille is a Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Klipfolio. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.
Originally published July 15, 2016, updated Jun, 10 2019