How to write an executive summary for your board report – and why you should (with examples)

Man writing report on laptop holds summary documentCongratulations: you’ve written your board report. That’s the good news. The not-so-good? Well, unless it’s only a page or two long, I have to tell you that you’re not finished yet.

Now you need to write the executive summary: in other words, a condensed version of your full document. This is (arguably) the most important part of your entire report.
 

Why write an executive summary?

As we’ve said before, your job as board-report writer is to make it as easy as possible for the board to take the decision you want them to take. The executive summary plays a key role here.

A good executive summary will begin to guide your board towards making that decision for you. A really good one will guide their decision from reading the summary alone.
 

What’s an executive summary for?

Remember that your board members are busy people. They are unlikely to have very much time to devote to your report. They may not have the time (or, forgive them, inclination) to read the whole thing.

That’s where the executive summary comes in. It’s there for the people who can’t (or won’t) read the whole report. An effective one gives those readers enough information to form an opinion or commit to an action.
 

What goes in an executive summary?

Most importantly, your executive summary needs to stand alone. Your reader must be able to read it and get all your most important points, your conclusions, and your recommendations.

To make sure you’re including the most significant, relevant points – and only those points – go back to your reader-profiling exercise from writing the full report. You’ll have asked yourself questions like ‘Who will read the paper?’ ‘What do they want from it?’ and most importantly, ‘How interested are they?’
 

Identify the crucial information

Now go further: where specifically do their interests lie and why? What motivates or drives them, if you know (or can find out)?

Maybe one is a financial director whose priority would be maximising profits or making savings – and specifically how much could be made or saved over what period. Meanwhile, your director of operations will be focused on resources and delivery.

What about any non-executive directors? They may have a remit to question your ideas from a strategic perspective. What will they be looking for? A link to a corporate plan or vision, maybe? Maybe you have a data-driven director who would be moved by a very specific statistic or a well-chosen graph or graphic.

Don’t include too much detail. You should aim to get your summary onto one side of paper – that’s about 400 words. And you should be clear in the summary about what you want the board to do after they’ve read your it (or your full paper).

And write your executive summary after you’ve finished your report. It’s easier to whittle down a well-planned and structured report into a succinct summary than to try to summarise up front and then expand into a report.
 

So, how do you structure the executive summary?

If your board report template comes with a structure for your executive summary too, use it. It may not suit your report, but it’s how your board want it. Or you may have a structured report template but more freedom to write the summary in the order you choose. In this case, you may find one of the following structures works well.

And if you have no template and free rein over how you write both elements, it’s worth mirroring the same structure in the report and summary.
 

A simple executive summary structure

For a simple summary of a report, you could try this:

  • Purpose: start with the purpose of your report and remind the reader of what the piece of work you are reporting on is. Keep this part very short: three or four sentences at most.
  • Background or methods: Either the background or what you did. Again, three or four sentences at most. Don’t tell the story of your project.
  • Findings and conclusions: What you found out and/or the conclusions you came to. You might need a little more detail here but still keep it short.
  • Recommendations: Your way forward and what you want the board to endorse.
  •  

This structure could work like this:

The purpose of this report

Our Gidgetty Widget production line cannot keep up with demand. This report updates you on our progress in updating and improving the line. We ask you to endorse the proposal under ‘The way forward’ below.
 

Our investigation

We looked at the current production line and where we can improve productivity. We also looked at current and potential demand for Gidgetty Widgets over the next five years.
 

What we discovered

There is scope to expand production on our line to meet current demand. However, Gidgetty Widget demand is likely to grow at 10% a year and we will not be able to keep up with demand in 2025. We need to outsource production to a third party or build a new production line. The quickest and most cost-effective method is to outsource.
 

The way forward

We believe that we should outsource production to one or more third parties. We ask the board to allow us to share our intellectual property with suitable companies so that we can plan and cost for the future.

 
However, if you’re feeling bolder, you may find one of the following structures even more effective.

 
Sad but true: the board may not read the full report you slaved over. So make sure the executive summary can do the job by itself. Here’s how, via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

Persuade with the Four Ps

If you want to make a case for something or persuade the board, you could use the 4Ps. The 4Ps is a persuasive summary structure in four parts, each of which begins with the letter P.

It looks like this:

  • Position: start with where you are now. A simple statement will do. You don’t want anything controversial here. The point is to get the reader nodding from the outset.
  • Problem: give the reason that you can’t stay where you are. This is the reason that you’re writing to the board in the first place. It could be an opportunity rather than a problem.
  • Possibilities: outline all the ways to address the problem or seize the opportunity. This can include the option of doing nothing, which is always a possibility.
  • Proposal: define your suggested way forward with your reasoning.

The summary above would look like this if we used the 4Ps:

The current situation

Annual turnover from sales of Gidgetty Widgets is £50 million. We sell them in 44 different countries. Our production line produces 500,000 Gidgetty Widgets every year.
 

We can’t keep up with demand

We currently sell every widget we can produce. Our demand forecasts suggest that we need to increase production to 700,000 a year by 2025 or we will lose sales to our competitors.
 

Three ways forward

1. We can expand our production line. We believe that we can increase production to 650,000 a year by 2023. However, we cannot expand production beyond this level.

This would be affordable but will limit us to a maximum production of 650,000 widgets a year. By 2024 we will be unable to meet demand.

2. We can outsource extra production to third-party companies. This has the advantage of being cheaper than the cost of upgrading our production line and is also scalable to meet future demand.

The disadvantage is that we will have to share our IP with third-party companies, which is a significant risk.

3. We could continue production at current levels and accept that we will not be able to meet demand.

This has the advantage of costing nothing. But we will be at risk of our competitors launching products to compete with Gidgetty Widgets.
 

Our recommendations

We should outsource production. We will be able to keep up with all future demand and we believe that we can mitigate the risks to our IP.

 

The 4Ps is a great way to take your readers through your thinking. It works well for summaries, and it’s especially good for presentations and pitches.
 

Try putting your request first

If you don’t need to persuade but only to ask for a decision, you could try putting what you’re asking for first, like this:

This paper asks the board to approve sharing our Gidgetty Widget IP with external suppliers so that we can outsource production in the future.

 
Then follow with a summary of your background, reasoning, and costings.

This structure gets straight to the point when you are asking the board to agree to a decision or course of action. It makes it clear up front what the purpose of your paper is and what you are asking for. It may seem a little blunt and to the point but, remember, your board members are busy. They may appreciate your clarity and directness.
 

Or start with your update’s purpose

Sometimes we have to write to the board to update them on something we’re working on. This may include asking them to approve some additional work. In this case, try leading with why you’re writing to them and what you want them to do, like this:

This paper updates the board with our progress on updating our Gidgetty Widget production line. It includes budget reports, schedule updates and projected production start dates. We ask the board to approve the schedules and budgets for the next 12 months.

 
This tells the board exactly what to expect from the report in the first two sentences. You should then follow it with your summary updates for spending, scheduling and so on. You will have included the detail in the full report that follows.

This structure also works for regular update reports where you are simply reporting on progress and not asking the board to do anything other than note what you are telling them. In this case, you might want to pull out the highlights of what has changed since the last update, and put them up front in your executive summary.
 

Clarity matters

Never be vague in a board report – or the summary document. If you are unclear about aspects of your project, you should make it clear that there are areas of ambiguity in your report. Or you should resolve the ambiguities before you write anything.

Assume that some of your readers do not share your knowledge and expertise. Be careful with jargon and explain all abbreviations and acronyms when you use them the first time, no matter how familiar they may seem to you. As always, board reports are no place for fashionable business speak. So avoid talk of deep dives, pivoting, circling back, and the new normal, please.
 

Formatting your executive summary

As with your full report, use formatting to make your document even more readable. Allow white space with decent-sized margins, and don’t use a tiny font to fit more text on the page (don’t go lower than 11-pt).

A few well-placed subheadings will help your reader to navigate your summary. Make sure they’re engaging rather than generic, and that they tell the reader something about what follows. Instead of ‘Background’ try ‘How did we get here?’, for example.

If you have a list, try using bullet points. But only use bullet points once in a one-page summary.

And always take the time to proofread the summary (and report). Your reputation is on the line here. Don’t do yourself the disservice of leaving a howling typo where all the board can see it.
 

Don’t forget

It’s likely that more people will read your executive summary than will read the whole board report. That makes it one important page of text.

Make sure your executive summary can do the job you need it to by carefully selecting the critical information that your board members need to understand the project or situation or to take a decision. As we’ve said before, this means thinking carefully about your specific reader(s) and what will matter most to them.

Keep it short and keep it as simple as you can make it. Be clear and be precise. As always, make your board’s job easy for them.

 

Image credit: fizkes / Shutterstock

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