Structure Your Executive Summary for a Decision

You need a decision from the senior management team, probably to spend money, time or both on a new project. You’ve done your homework and know what you are going to ask for. How can you make it easy for the team, your readers, to take the decision? Be kind to them. This means not taxing their working memory by making them hunt around for information.

Say you need the senior team to approve an expansion plan. The way you structure your document can help. Rather than a traditional, context-first format, you can try this:

1. Ask for what you want upfront.
2. Explain the problem briefly.
3. Show where more information is.
4. Put it in context.

Let’s take a quick step back. Here’s what often happens in an Exec Summary: the writer sets the scene with a few paragraphs of background, full of dates and acronyms. The topic is mentioned, but the need for the decision is not clear. To show how much work has gone into the document, many sections and appendices are listed. There is no clear outline of the decision to be taken.

The upshot is a reader who does not know what is expected of them and is probably confused or exasperated already. It often reads like this:

So, how could this be better? Let’s see how our new order could help the reader.

1. Ask for what you want upfront. (red)
2. Explain the problem. (green)
3. Show where more information is. (blue)
4. Put it in context. (orange)

There are a couple of other techniques are going on in this example that you can use.

- The primacy effect – the idea that readers recall information better if it is presented first. Your first sentences need to count.

Try this: read the first sentence of each paragraph aloud. Do they flow and make sense together? If not, switch the most important point to the beginning of the sentence.

- Short statement sentence – Shorter sentences are easier for the reader to process, but lots in sequence can make a document dull.

Try this: Keep the opening sentence short (fewer than 20 words) and add detail in the following, longer sentences. Vary your sentence length.

If you’re writing an Executive Summary for a decision, you know your stuff. You know what to say. But successful communication has equal parts what we write, why we’re writing it and therefore, how we write it.

Structuring your Exec Summary like this will give your reader confidence in your expertise and they’ll pay attention to your idea. Which all makes it easier for them to take the decision.

Do you have other tips or questions about Exec Summaries? We’d love to hear them! Drop Kate a line at kate.warwick@wordsavvy.co.uk.