How to write an executive summary: ask these questions first

Your executive summary is the most important part of your report, proposal or other major document. 

The reader will want to see an overview of your message (summary). Moreover, they’ll want to know what to do (execute) after reading it. To be as powerful as possible, ask these questions before and after you write it. 


Questions to ask before you write

Think about why someone wants the information you’re about to give.

A senior manager may want to know what’s happening in your department, perhaps to feed information further up the ladder. You may be closer to the action or have more expertise in a particular area.

Your reader might need early alerts to problems, opportunities or the general climate. Colleagues may need to know what you’re doing so they can co-ordinate better with their own work.

Natalie Canavor suggests questions to ask to discover what needs to go in:

  • What immediate and long-term goals are important to the company?
  • Have we achieved any milestones?
  • What are the changes from the previous period, and their impact? Have things progressed or regressed?
  • What have you done, and what are the results or progress?
  • Did you face any challenges, and if so how did you solve them?
  • What surprised you? What frustrated you?
  • Is the company or department moving in the right direction?
  • What opportunities do you see? What do you recommend?

(transcribed from Business Writing for Dummies, 2013.)

Questions to ask after you write

Canavor tells us to aim for powerful summaries by asking:

  • Does it generate interest to lure readers in?
  • Have you crafted the larger document’s main points into a cohesive story that readers can easily understand?
  • Can the reader understand the document in perspective, so your audience knows why it matters to them?
  • Does it say everything that matters most with energy and lively language?
  • Is there a clear call-to-action?

For more on report writing and executive summaries, see my article on How to use headings to structure your report.


Questions to ask before you write

Proposals have to be particularly persuasive. Carl Dickson explains how to write a proposal’s executive summary from the customer’s point of view. He suggests asking:

  • What is the first thing that a customer wants to see or find out from your proposal?
  • What comes after that? And after that? And so on…
  • What questions do they need answers to?
Questions to ask after you write

Dickson goes on to say every proposal should answer the following questions, so imagine yourself as the customer and ask:

  • What am I going to get if I accept your proposal?
  • Why is your proposal my best alternative?
  • Can I trust you to deliver as promised?
  • What do I have to do to get it?

Considering these questions will help you sound decisive and motivated, and have a big impact on your reader. For more on writing proposal executive summaries, see Dickson’s post on what to avoid when writing your executive summary.

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