Tips For Writing The Executive Summary

It’s the end of semester and the stress of impending due dates for reports, essays and exams is upon us. A friend has asked me for some tips on writing an executive summary that I wanted to share to anyone else struggling with this crucial aspect of the report.

For those who are unsure or misinformed, the executive summary is the part of your report that “sells” what the following 20/50/100 pages are about to the reader. In the real world, the reader may be a potential investor, project manager or simply your boss. However in the academic world, this person is going to be your lecturer, tutor or a post-grad student that your lecturer has outsourced marking to.

First, some perspective. Consider the size of your report and how tedious you found that third proof read. Now, imagine the daunting task facing anyone marking a stack of 30+ reports and you begin to see how important it is to make the first impression a good one. If your executive summary is dull, poorly written or incoherent it will set a premise in the markers mind for all the hard work that you put into the body of the report. The follow 5 tips in this post have been compiled from my 4 years of report writing at uni,  input provided by lecturers to make sure I’m not giving incorrect advice and of course, Google.

1. Leave It Until Last:

Many fall into the trap of writing the executive summary first because it is the first piece of content in the report. However as I mentioned before, the executive summary has to sell the report. You can’t sell something that you haven’t yet done. Writing the executive summary first will leave you with an introduction to what you will do in the report as opposed to stating what you have done and the results/recommendations of that work. Therefore, you should to leave it until the end when you have made your recommendations.

2. Read The Assignment Specification:

If you are stuck with how to start the first paragraph and are looking at an empty white screen with a blinking cursor, stop. Look over the assignment specification which will often state a problem or undesirable situation for which you must make a recommendation. Take this situation and state why it was imperative that the report/study be conducted and the recommendations you make be considered. remember, the first few sentences need to be both relevant to the topic and get the attention of the reader. Is there a new market opportunity that Wal-Mart should take advantage of? Or is Australia’s e-health strategy so under-developed that we need to assess a different country’s program for some perspective? Make it confront the reader in such a way that they are intrigued and want to read on.

3. Recycle:

The hard work is over – you’ve done the research and made the recommendations in the body of the report, now is the time to recycle that hard work. The bulk of the executive summary is going to contain each of the main problems you overcame, opportunities identified  or situations analysed. What I have found useful is for each section, take the introductory sentence that states the problem, and then summarize the key points in a few sentences. Avoid being technical where possible as in the real world, the person who would read the executive summary may not be as familiar with (nor care about) the nitty gritty details. The reader simply wants to know that the problem exists, and what you recommend can solve it. Keep the paragraphs at a reasonable size as you don’t want to devote more than a 1.5 pages to the executive summary.

For a few subject specific executive summary structures this site may be of use, however your uni may have their own specific structure they want you to follow.

4. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread:

Grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes make people die a little on the inside. Not only will your poorly written executive summary (and report for that matter) cause the slow decay of someones soul, it will also slow down the flow of reading, thus taking more time to mark. You don’t want a marker spending more time than necessary on your report. A lecturer once told me of a report he had read that was 20 pages long, contained one paragraph and a single full-stop. It took the lecturer an extra 20 minutes to mark as opposed to a normal report.  I’m sure this disdain was reflected in the final result, no matter how brilliant the content was. Proofread your work, ensure that it flows the way it should and when you think it has, print it out and do it again. I always seem to find new, seemingly obvious mistakes when looking at a physical copy.

5. The Outside Perspective:

Now that all is said and done, give the summary to a parent, house mate, friend etc to read. Make sure it is someone who will give you an honest opinion –  preferably not your mother who will love it no matter how bad it is. You want to find out if a) they understand it and b) they were convinced or compelled by what they have read. Understandably the benefits of for example, open source software, may not be everyone’s idea of a great read, so aim to make sure that they weren’t bored to death. If they weren’t then you have yourself a complete executive summary, otherwise you may have a little bit more tweaking to do.

A Final Note:

Some of these tips may seem obvious to some, but my experience in the past two years has shown me that a lot of people aren’t quite sure what exactly the executive summary is, let alone how to write one.  Obviously, different styles of reports will require more/different components in the executive summary so it will be up to you to find out what essential aspects you may require – such as a  limitations paragraph.

If anyone has any of their own pro tips or thinks that I’ve gotten something wrong then please leave a comment down below.


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