Other than business plans, executive summaries are probably the most crucial of all business documents. It's fair to say that almost every big decision inside any company of any size involved an executive summary during the decision-making process.

Unfortunately, many people wrongly believe that an executive summary is a summary of the document, like a "Cliff Notes." Uh, no.

The purpose of an executive summary is to recommend a decision, not provide information. The longer document provides drill-down proof for that recommendation.

Loosely based upon conversations I've had with proposal guru Tom Sant, here's how to write an executive summary that will convince an executive (or executive team) to make a decision:

1. Describe a problem, need or goal.

Underneath the words "EXECUTIVE SUMMARY" explain in one or two sentences (at most) why a decision is needed. Be specific and include quantifiable measurements, if possible.

Wrong:

This document describes the XYZ solution in detail. Here is a summary of its contents...

Right:

We are experiencing a $10 million shortfall in yearly revenue due to telecommunications network outages.

2. Describe the desired outcome.

In one or two sentences (at most) describe what will be different if the problem is solved, the need is fulfilled, or the goal is achieved. Do not provide any details of the solution.

Wrong:

In Chapter 1, we describe the multiple standard-compliant analog flux capacitors...

Right:

According to our estimates (see Section 1), reducing or eliminating these outages will increase our profitability by as much as 20%.

3. Describe your proposed solution.

Under the word "PROPOSAL," describe in a series of short paragraphs the element of your solution to the problem (as in Step 1) which will create the desired outcome (as in Step 2).

In each paragraph, refer to the sections in the larger document where that part of your solution is described in detail. Make each paragraph crisp and readable. Avoid jargon, biz-blab and needless abstractions. If at all possible, arrange the paragraphs into a step-by-step plan.

Wrong:

Leveraging our existing infrastructure will capitalize past technology investments while optimizing retraining requirements. The enhanced reliability will cause our mission-critical productivity to explode, thereby creating a monetized competitive edge.

Right:

To address the above problem, we propose the following:

1. Purchase and install a pilot system. This will allow us to test the new software without endangering our day-to-day operations. The requirements for this pilot system are described in Section 4.

[more steps]

4. Explain how you'll overcome risks.

Every business decision that's not a no-brainer involves some level of risk. Therefore, under the heading "RISKS" briefly describe those risks and how you propose to overcome them (or why they're not really a risk).

Once again, keep these paragraphs tight. Use plain language. As with the previous step, tie each paragraph to the relevant section of the longer document.

Wrong:

The proposed solution is vendor agnostic and integrates into multiple system architectures through the use of customized execute-ready scripts...

Right:

To convert the entire customer service department, we'll need to retrain our service personnel, which could reduce the department's response time. However, we plan to reduce that possibility by writing a customized training manual.

5. Ask for the decision you want made.

Under the heading "RECOMMENDATION" describe in as few words as possible, the decision that you'd like the executive(s) to make. Be specific.

If the decision involves money include the amount. If there are reasons that the decision must be made by a certain time, surface them.

Wrong:

Our ongoing concern about phone system outages continues to impact our company and therefore should be addressed in an expeditious manner.

Right:

To complete this project by the end of the current fiscal year without disrupting our current operations, we need you to approve an increase of $2 million in next quarter's IT budget.

Sample Executive Summaries

Below are the two executive summaries described above as they'd actually appear. Lest you think that the first example is artificially opaque, I assure you that I personally have seen worse. Far worse.

Wrong:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This document describes the XYZ solution in detail. Here is a summary of its contents:

In Chapter 1, we describe the multiple standard-compliant analog flux capacitors...

[more chapter summaries]

Leveraging our existing infrastructure will capitalize past technology investments while optimizing retraining requirements. The enhanced reliability will cause our mission-critical productivity to explode, thereby creating a monetized competitive edge. The proposed solution is vendor agnostic and integrates into multiple system architectures through the use of customized execute-ready scripts.

Our ongoing concern about phone system outages continues to impact our company and therefore should be addressed in an expeditious manner.

Right:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

We are experiencing a $10 million shortfall in yearly revenue due to telecommunications network outages.

According to our estimates (see Section 1), reducing or eliminating these outages will increase our profitability by as much as 20%.

PROPOSAL

To address the above problem, we propose the following:

  1. Purchase and install a pilot system. This will allow us to test the new software without endangering our day-to-day operations. The requirements for this pilot system are described in Section 4.

[more steps]

RISKS

  1. Possibility of lower response time. In Stage 3 of the above plan, we'll need to retrain our service personnel, which could temporarily reduce the department's average response time. However, we plan to reduce that possibility by writing a customized training manual.

[more risks]

RECOMMENDATION

To complete this project by the end of the current fiscal year without disrupting our current operations, we need you to approve an increase of $2 million in next quarter's IT budget.

Seriously, which of those two executive summaries do YOU think is likely to lead to the best decision?