Executive summaries: 5 tips for success
Updated: Apr 26
As a rule, the first bit of any copywriting is the most important. The longer your text is, the more essential it is that you give people a short summary of what it’s about. Whether your reader is a busy CEO with a stack of papers to get through, or a single parent juggling the school run and work, people want to quickly find the information they need. And they need reassurance that your content is worth their time if they decide to keep reading.
What is an executive summary?
An executive summary is literally a summary for executives. Many business leaders don’t have time to wade through every page of the countless reports they get each week, so they depend on the summary to give them the highlights. They can use it to make informed decisions without reading the full report, or delegate someone to investigate further.
Of course, you don’t have to be a busy executive to appreciate an executive summary. Your readers could include researchers, potential clients, industry peers – anyone who might need a quick overview of your points.
An executive summary is not an introduction. An introduction often focuses on the challenge or context. Its job is to set up the rest of the report and convince people to read on: “here is what we’re going to tell you, this is why it’s important”. Instead, think of an executive summary as the shortest possible version of your full report.
What makes a good executive summary?
An executive summary should provide all the information your reader needs, as efficiently as possible. That means the format might change depending on the situation – an industry briefing for high-level executives doesn’t need a long set-up explaining lots of context, for example. But a summary report for a general audience might need to include more background.
Bad executive summaries often focus too much on the context and read more like an introduction. Or they’re overselling the organisation and its goals, not leaving any room to give evidence or talk about actionable steps for the reader.
How to write an executive summary
When you put so much effort in to your new insight report, annual review, or business plan, don’t ruin it with a sloppy executive summary. It might be the only chance you have to persuade CEOs or high-level decision-makers.
Here are our top tips on making those words count.
1. Write it last...
…Well, actually, in an ideal world, you’d have the whole report mapped out down to the finest detail. Your executive summary will be very similar to this outline plan, but with specific readers in mind. In that situation, you should write your executive summary first and use it to inform your writing as you go.
However, if you’re not confident in your plan, or you don’t know exactly what the report covers, the conclusions you’ll make, and the key bits of evidence, you can’t write an effective executive summary. So save it for later.
2. Think of it as a blurb
Some executive summaries seem to summarise every single point made in the report. But if you need to use more than about 5% of your page count for the summary, it’s probably too long.
Your readers don’t need every detail. If they’re planning to read the report, the summary should give them just enough to understand if the content is useful and interesting to them. If they’re not planning to read it, the summary should give them the headline facts or recommendations they’re looking for.
We’ve written a blog post on how the CIGAR structure can keep you focused when writing an intro. This works well for executive summaries too:
Context – give some background to the report, including any trends you’re focusing on
Issue – dramatise the problem you’re trying to solve, mentioning statistics that prove your point
Goal – explain what success looks like, including any KPIs or measures
Action – the practical steps needed to achieve the goal
Resolution – what will happen after the action has been taken? And what do you want your reader to do next?
The balance of these elements can be tailored to your reader. For example, this summary from Greenpeace has very little context. The lengthy report title, Zeroing In: A guide for the finance sector on the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions scenario and its implications for oil and gas finance, says everything you need to know about the report and its purpose. The executive summary instead takes the form of a page of key facts, which is all the clued-in target audience needs to know:
3. Get to the point
Cutting out waffle can be a bit of a skill to master. Let’s use a real example to show what’s possible. Here’s an extract from McKinsey’s Quantum Computing: An emerging ecosystem and industry use cases:
In anticipation of possible developments in the field, we discuss the emerging quantum-computing ecosystem, dive into relevant use cases in four key industries, and preview the path forward, including how to get started. To evaluate commercial use cases for quantum computing, we focus on pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automotive, and finance because our research and analysis suggest that these industries will derive significant value from quantum computing in the near term. Given the nascency of quantum computing, our overview of several use cases is intended to guide researchers and users toward high-potential areas in which to further develop their insights rather than provide a comprehensive list.
Firstly, let’s cut out the repetition. For example, the last two sentences are basically saying the report is focusing on high-potential areas instead of every industry. For a summary, you don’t need to keep reinforcing your point – save that for when you make the argument in the main body.
Next, we can tighten up the language to cut down the wordiness. For example, “in anticipation of” is a nominalisation – a verb turned into a noun. In most cases, the original verb is shorter and a stronger choice.
Finally, we can split up some of those long sentences. Even if the word count doesn’t change, shorter sentences are much quicker to read:
[To anticipate] possible developments in the field, we discuss the emerging quantum-computing ecosystem. [We] dive into [its application]. in four key industries [And] preview the path forward, including how to get started. [For] commercial [uses] for quantum computing, we focus on pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automotive, and finance because our research and analysis suggest[s] that these industries will derive significant value from quantum computing in the near term. Given the nascency of quantum computing, our overview of several use cases is intended to guide researchers and users toward high-potential areas in which to further develop their insights rather than provide a comprehensive list.
Here's what it looks like now:
To anticipate possible developments, we discuss the emerging quantum-computing ecosystem. We dive into its application. And preview the path forward, including how to get started. For commercial uses, we focus on pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automotive, and finance as our research suggests that these industries will derive value from quantum computing in the near term.
You might argue that some of the subtleties of the original content have gone. But that’s just what’s needed here – copy that’s straight to the point, with only essential information, and as quick to read as possible.
4. Be creative
Often the introductory pages are in the form of blocks of text. Why? If your report is filled with infographics, charts, powerful statistics, there’s no reason your executive summary can’t be visually compelling too. You could include quotes, bullet lists, subheadings, pictures – anything that helps you paint a picture more effectively.
This page from PwC’s Workforce of the future report uses subheadings and very succinct text to quickly explain the top-line messages of the report. The image in the background reinforces the forward-looking theme too.
5. Use it wisely
The executive summary might be the only section some people will read. So as well as summarising the content you’ve spent so long developing, use it to add value in other ways.
If you closely follow your organisation’s tone of voice, the summary is an extra bit of brand awareness. If you take ownership of accomplishments like “we surveyed over 2000 industry leaders”, it’s a way to show off your capabilities. If you mention some key personalities within your organisation, it’s a way to start building trust and respect.
The WWF Living Planet report uses the executive summary as more than just an outline of the facts. It dramatises the problem and explains the solution. The tone is urgent and the persuasive content reads like a campaign. They’ve used the space as another opportunity to get their message across.
It doesn’t take much effort to turn an executive summary from a simple synopsis into a much more useful piece of content in its own right.
Bonus tip: get someone to do it for you
Executive summary still not hitting the mark? Get in touch and see how we could work together to make your content achieve its goal.