The executive summary: A reader’s plea

I love executive summaries. I like to read as many things as possible, but don’t always have as much time as I’d like. So a good executive summary allows me to get the gist of what something’s about, quickly and without fuss. And depending on what I find, I can then digest the key points and move on, grab a cup of tea and read the whole thing, or throw whatever it is in the recycling without feeling that I’m missing anything important.

So it pains me greatly when I come across an executive summary that doesn’t cut the mustard. And quite recently, that’s been happening a lot.

So what’s the problem? Well, for starters, it’s supposed to be a summary. That means it needs to be quite short. Or, at least, shorter than the document that it’s supposed to be summarising. Sadly, this can’t always be taken for granted. So keep it crisp and concise. On a single page, if you can. On two pages, if you can’t. But certainly no more.

It also needs to be a balanced reflection of what’s in the document itself. Don’t just put all the salacious stuff in the summary and ignore everything else. Tell me the key points and why they’re important. If you don’t have any key points, it’s perhaps time to question whether it’s worth publishing the document at all.

The executive summary should, furthermore, be a stand-alone element of the document. So that I can find out what I need to know without having to wade into the depths of the pages that follow. By all means mention that something is discussed further in the main body of the report or that there is more information in the appendices, but please don’t make me feel that I need to read the whole damned thing to find out what’s going on.

It would be nice, too, if the summary was easy to find. Put it at the front. So it’s the first thing I find when I open the cover. Before the contents page, preferably, and definitely before the introduction. I read a report the other day where chapter one was the introduction and chapter two was the executive summary. No, no, no. If I ruled the world, I’d decree that all executive summaries should be on the cover of the document. If I can’t find it, I can’t read it.

Oh, and one last thing. Never, ever cut and paste content from the main body of the document into the executive summary. Please. I know it’s tempting. And I know we’ve all done it. (Yes, me too. Though I wasn’t proud of myself.) But the clue’s in the name. The idea is to summarise the document, not just repeat bits of it.

A good executive summary helps a report or other document to really stand out. And it can broaden significantly the audience of people who read it and learn from what it has to say. Yes, writing a good executive summary takes time and effort. But it’s most definitely time and effort well spent. Because it’s your one chance to attract the attention of the harassed reader and to stop your hard work from flying straight into the bin.

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