How to Write a really good Executive Summary? Here are some thoughts, but I need your comments.

February 10, 2014 23 By Duncan Green

Inspired by your great crowdsourcing on where to do a part time Masters (can someone collect the comments into a single document dead_tired_writerplease?), does anyone fancy helping me draft a short guideline on how to write decent executive summaries? Here’s the draft – over to you for improvements, suggestions for good/bad examples of the art etc. This is to add to Martin Walsh‘s burgeoning series of research guidelines on everything from semi-structured interviews to ethics to how to do a literature review- worth a look.

Picture the scene. An exhausted author grinds to the end of a gruelling process of research, writing and sign off. A 40 page draft lies before them – by now they can hardly bare to even look at it, let alone read it yet again. But the front page has only two words on it ‘Executive Summary’. OMG, better get on with it.

Disaster, because in terms of readership and impact, you should spend a lot of time and care on the Exec Sum, not a begrudging half hour at the end of months of slog.

Why? Because many more people will read the Exec Sum than ever read the whole paper. (Even more people will read the title and then decide not to bother with the report, but that’s another issue). The Exec Sum is the bridge between the often-technical arguments and findings of the main report, and the target audience, whether media, decision makers or aid professionals. Yet all too often, it is dashed off as an afterthought, badly written and missing some of the best nuggets in the main report. What a waste! Here are some ideas on how to get it right, or at least not as wrong.

Who? It may be better (if you can) to ask someone with a media or comms background to draft the Exec Sum. (The author should of course also check and revise the draft.) A fresh pair of eyes will be closer to the mindset of the eventual reader; they will spot what’s interesting and new; they are more likely to avoid jargon and specialist vocabulary; they do not hate the report like the author probably does by now. If you’re a one-person outfit without the luxury of a second pair of eyes, at least get a good night’s sleep and maybe spend a day working on something else to clear your head before starting in on the Exec Sum.

What? Try and keep it to two pages max – one sheet of double sided paper, (and don’t cheat by shrinking the font – if anything it should be larger than for the main report). Above two pages, you will lose readers fast. If you can get it down to a single page, or even a single paragraph (for example if there is one stand-out finding from the report), so much the better.

And now for the Exec Sum...

And now for the Exec Sum…

The first paragraph is the Exec Sum of the Exec Sum – crucial to getting and keeping the readers’ attention (imagine a tired journalist skimming a dozen incoming reports, or someone in front of a computer scanning their RSS feed – what makes them keep reading,  rather than moving onto the others?). It should say who your organization is, why it has written this report, and what is new or interesting in it.

You need a clear statement of the problem the report is addressing and the key findings of the research.

Identify and import any killer facts or particularly striking graphics from the main report.

Add a few of the main recommendations, but not a two page shopping list

How? If you are a new pair of eyes, first interview the author to get their views on what is new or interesting. They will know both the report and the other literature on the topic far better than anyone else in the organization.

Then start with the original full report (not the ToRs or the original Concept Note – they should have been superseded by the report.) Read it carefully, particularly the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Highlight key words or ideas, (even if you’re the original author, this may be a worthwhile exercise) as well as killer facts and good graphics.

Using these prompts, construct the strongest possible narrative. If you have trouble doing so, that may be because the report itself is not clear, either in arguments or structure – writing the Exec Sum can often lead to tweaking the main report, so you may need to go back to the author on this.

Re-read it, test it, get others to read it and comment on what does/doesn’t make sense. If you’re a fresh pair of eyes, ask the author to factcheck it and point out any key omissions. Take your time – this is the most critical part of the report.

Things to Avoid

Do not introduce the structure of the main report: ‘in section one, we discuss the context of X’ – the Exec Sum needs to work as a executive summarystandalone document.

Do not introduce new ideas, references, or arguments.

Don’t oversell – sprinkling hype (‘groundbreaking, breathtaking, extraordinary, outrageous’) over the document will put people off. Substance, not superlatives, is what will convince them to keep reading.

Keep jargon and acronyms to an absolute minimum, and explain their meaning the first time you use them. In particular minimise the use of mind-numbing development speak (ongoing participatory processes etc). Keep in mind George Orwell’s guide to how to write.

Examples of Good/Bad Exec Sums

Please send me your favourites in both categories, (including Oxfam papers of course) along with your reasons for proposing them. Plus a special mention for the person sending the longest/shortest Exec Sum.

And to get you started, here’s a few from the business world