Executive summaries for bids and proposals: a Q&A

Businesswoman raises her hand to ask a question during a meetingThe executive summary you include with your proposal can be critical in helping you win work. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to know how to get the best out of this small but mighty document. In fact, in my work with bid teams, I’ve come across a lot of confusion about how to write a good summary for a bid or proposal – or whether to even bother trying.

So let’s clear that up. When I help clients optimise their bids and proposals, there are some recurring questions that come up: here are my answers to three of the most common.
 

Is an executive summary important – should I include one?

Short answer: Only if you want to win.

Full answer:
People ask me this question a lot. I suspect this is because – like many things to do with proposals, bids and tenders – terminology often causes confusion.

Like with any document that you’re writing, your first step should be to understand why you’re writing it. And despite its name, the point of an executive summary isn’t to summarise your entire proposal for executives. (A well-written proposal will already include summaries throughout; decision-makers could just skim-read the proposal if all they wanted was a summary.)

Instead, the aim of an executive summary should be to convince the reader that you’re their best option. There are two crucial moments when it might need to do this – and two critical readers to consider.
 

Setting the stage

Evaluators might read the executive summary before assessing individual responses. Generally, they are meant to base their score for an individual response only on what’s contained in that specific response (and other specified documents where applicable). So, trying to repeat the point-scoring elements of each response isn’t very useful. Instead, you should try to set the stage for why you deserve top scores so that evaluators are predisposed to think you’re the best option before they even get to your responses.
 

Justifying their decision

So you’ve won over the evaluators. Next, decision-makers might read your executive summary following the recommendation that comes out of a formal evaluation process. What they’re probably looking for is justification for why you scored so highly and proof that you can be trusted to deliver what they want.

Once we understand the point of an executive summary, it’s obvious that we should include one every time.
Executive summaries for bids: worth including? Short answer: Only if you want to win, says bid-strategy expert Paul White @EmphasisWriting. But wait, there's more Click To Tweet
 

When should I write an executive summary – at the start or at the end?

Short answer: Both.

Full answer:
The executive summary should be the first thing and the last thing you write. That is, you should write it at the start of your proposal-development process, revise it as things change, and review it after everything else has been finished.

This can increase your chances of winning by helping you to:

  • make sure you have a compelling offer
  • develop a coherent proposal
  • make reviews more effective.

 

Make sure you have a compelling offer

If you’re struggling to write an executive summary at the start, this could be a warning sign that you haven’t defined a compelling rationale for why your solution is the customer’s best option.

Before investing resources in pursuing the opportunity, you want to be sure that you have a good chance of winning. You should have a good understanding of the decision-makers, their key issues and their options. And you should have used this understanding to develop a plan for how you’ll deliver the best solution and proposal.

Armed with a good plan, it should be pretty simple to develop a strong first draft of the executive summary. If you’re finding it hard to write a compelling executive summary, review your win plan.
 

Develop a coherent proposal

If you’re working as part of a bid team, then an early draft of the executive summary is a great way to brief the whole team and give them a common understanding of the customer, the outcomes you’re committing to delivering and your key competitive differentiators.

Bid submissions often have many contributors, and there’s a risk that people will have different ideas about what you’re trying to deliver. An executive summary helps individual contributors to validate their understanding of the team’s overall approach – and to challenge it when they think it could be improved.

It also helps everyone to develop the separate parts of the response that will come together to form a coherent, compelling proposal.
 

Make reviews more effective

Executive summaries also help to improve reviews. If reviewers understand what matters most to the customer, they are better able to critique how compelling the proposal is. Without understanding the outcomes that the customer wants or your planned approach for delivering the best solution, reviewers often have to base their feedback on their best guesses.

Reviewers can also help to spot discrepancies between the executive summary and other parts of the submission. (This is why it’s important that the executive summary is the last thing you finish writing.)

You will have gained a better understanding of the customer and your competitors by the end of the proposal-development process than you had at the start of it. Hopefully, you started this before the ITT was released or very soon after, and it takes time for the team to work through the documents and subsequent clarifications to develop a clear understanding of the requirements and the best solutions.

Ask reviewers to look out for discrepancies and help you make sure the executive summary reflects the team’s best understanding of the customer and your solution.
Should you write an executive summary for your bid? If so, when – at the start or end? And how long should it be? Find all the answers in this Q&A with bid strategist Paul White, via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

How long should an executive summary be?

Short answer: An executive summary is too short to be small.

Full answer:
I’ve heard a wide range of claims about how long an executive summary should be: one page, three pages, five pages, ten per cent of the length of the entire bid submission. And I’ve seen circumstances where each of these has been appropriate – which makes it clear that none of them really works as a hard-and-fast rule.

Instead of capping your executive summary at an arbitrary length, just ensure every word counts. This is a short document (at least compared with your bid) that needs to work hard. And you need to focus on making it as concise and compelling as possible.

Concise because you want it to be short enough so that even the busiest people will make time to read it.

Compelling because the point of the executive summary is to convince the reader that you’re their best option.

When deciding what to include in your executive summary, keep reminding yourself you should only be including the big stuff – the things that matter most to the customer. You’ll need to have invested time and effort in understanding the customer (ie what they want to achieve and what their options are). The executive summary is your chance to make this investment pay off.

To develop an effective executive summary, you simply have to do two things:

  • Explain why you’re the customer’s best option.
  • Prove it.

Write your executive summary with these aims in mind. And then ask someone to review it to check how well you’ve achieved these aims. If there’s any small stuff in there, cut it out.

I know that this is a great example of something being simple but not easy. If you’re not sure what will convince the customer that you’re their best option, you need to put in the time and effort to figure this out. If you’re not sure, how can they be?
 

Ground rules for executive summaries

So, while we’re thinking in terms of concise but powerful messages, here are the three key takeaways to remember for every bid or proposal you write:

  • Executive summaries are only important if you want to win.
  • Executive summaries should be the first and last thing you write.
  • Executive summaries are too short to be small.

I hope I’ve convinced you of the significance of the executive summary. Not only is it a critical part of your final bid submission, it’s also an indispensable tool throughout the bid development process, and even for validating your proposal in the first place.

Do you have any questions left unanswered? If so, leave them with us below or tweet us @EmphasisWriting.
 

How should you structure your executive summary?  You can read about one effective approach here.

Image credit: skynesher / iStock

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