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Executive Summaries

In the front of any significant report is a page or two entitled the Executive Summary. This page summarizes the purpose and structure of this summary, a litmus test to determine if the executive summary is well written, and how executive summaries contrast with abstracts.

Structure and Purpose

The executive summary is an executive's digest or summary of the full body of a report. It is not a substitute for the introduction, nor is it meant to be combined with an introduction. It is a summary of the content of the report with the target audience being an executive member of a business organization who has the authority to action the recommendations of a report, but may not have the time to thoroughly read through the entire report.

The contents of the executive summary include:

  • the purpose of the report and the problem being addressed,
  • the larger scope or project in which the report is being written,
  • an overview of any requirements, methodologies or analysis used,
  • a summary of any results or findings sufficient to allow the reader to understand the significance, and
  • a summary or conclusions and the actionable recommendations.

Some points concerning the writing of an executive summary include:

  • It is usually written for a non-technical audience.
  • It is 5 to 10 % of the length of the report body.
  • It is written in the same order as the report itself.
  • It can be detached from the report, yet it remains a stand-alone summary of the report.

For further information, please see the Wikipedia article, which also includes criticisms of the executive summary format.

A Litmus Test for Executive Summaries

Very often, authors will mistake or combine the executive summary of a report and its introduction. Give the executive summary to another person: That reader must be able to understand the items listed above and, assuming they trust your analysis, understand what business decision or course of action the report will support.

At the same time, it should be possible to rip the executive summary out of a report and the report itself should continue to be a complete and coherent document—no information can be lost.

You can, of course, put yourself in the shoes of the other person, but if you're new to report writing, it's a good idea to have a friend stand in for the reader.

How Executive Summaries Differ from Abstracts

An abstract is a brief overview of a report meant to give a quick overview of the purpose of the report. It usually gives a statement of

  • the problem being addressed,
  • the methodologies used,
  • the results or findings, and
  • the main conclusions and recommendations.

An abstract is often directed at a peer of the author. For further information, see the Wikipedia article.