Current Adelaide time:

Fresh News: The secrets of writing a truly useful executive summary

Article by Philip Yaffee

The secrets of writing a truly useful executive summary

by Philip Yaffe


In virtually all walks of live -- business, education, politics, research, etc. -- documents of more than a few of pages consist of the body and an executive summary.

Unfortunately, most writers treat the executive summary as an afterthought rather than forethought.

"It's in the name, isn't it?" Indeed, it is. The term "summary" suggests that the body should be written first, then summarized. However, to be truly useful, the summary should be written first (at least in rough) and the body afterwards.

Why? Because the purpose of the executive summary is not to summarize, but to direct.

Most people to whom executive summaries are addressed often have neither the time nor the desire to read the body in its entirety. First and foremost they imperatively need a short text that clearly relates all the key information in one place, then provides all the details, if really required.

But isn't this precisely why the body should be written first, then summarized?

No. When writing the body first, there is a strong tendency to put in virtually all the information available. Because there are no clear criteria for determining what is truly useful and what isn't, the writer almost invariably puts in too much. Writing the summary first helps establish inclusion and exclusion criteria, so that extraneous information is less likely to clutter up and obscure what the reader really needs to know.

Writing the summary first also automatically reduces the length of the document. Most writers will claim that after the first draft, they go back and remove all extraneous information. However once a piece of information has been included, it is psychologically very difficult to remove it. "After all, I must have had a good reason for putting it in. Besides, it is interesting and/or amusing, so I think I will leave it."

Interesting and amusing are not valid criteria. If information isn't useful to the reader, it has no reason to be there. Would it be better not to include it in the first place, rather than later agonizing over cutting it out?

To repeat, the purpose of the executive summary is not to summarize, but to direct. Treating it as a road sign rather than a dead end provides numerous advantageous for both the writer and the reader.

Advantages for the writer

A summary that directs rather than summarizes helps the writer:

  1. Fully understand the information he or she is trying to communicate
  1. Establish criteria for including, and more importantly, for excluding information
  1. Organize the information in the most useful way possible

Advantages for the reader

A summary that directs rather than summarizes helps the reader:

  1. Get a clear overview of the information contained in the body
  1. Determine which sections and subsections of the body they may find of particular importance
  1. Decide whether they even need to read the body at all

Different people have different interests. For example, in a corporate report, the financial director will want a quick overview of what the document is all about, then probably specific information concerning its possible impact on the company's finances. Likewise, the director of public affairs will want a quick overview of what the document is all about, then probably specific information concerning the possible impact on relations with customers, shareholders, and the general public.

The president, of course, will want to know something about everything, but that still doesn't mean that he or she must read everything. The person sitting at the peak of the pyramid will probably appreciate a summary that directs rather than summarizes more than anyone else,

The wider the intended audience, the wider will be their range of specific interests. But however diverse the recipients, they share a single common desire. They want the document to clearly direct them to what they must read, leaving any additional text they may wish peruse to their own judgement.

To achieve its purpose, an executive summary should be written like the lead of a newspaper article. In journalese, the "lead" is the first few sentences or paragraphs that pick out and highlight the key information to follow. Because it condenses all the key information into a minimum of words at the beginning, the lead allows the reader to decide if they want to go any further or devote their time and attention to something else.

In general, people who start reading a newspaper article seldom finish it. This does not represent failure, but success. As every journalist knows, if people had to read an entire article to discover whether or not it was worth reading in the first place, they wouldn't read anything at all.

An executive summary should serve the same purpose. It should allow people to decide for themselves what they need and want to read rather than trying to force them to read everything. For an insight into how journalists produce their clear, concise, informative leads, you can read "How to improve your writing by standing on your head" on this site or elsewhere on the Internet.

To underscore the executive summary's true nature and importance, perhaps the term should be dropped and replaced by something more appropriate, such as "executive briefing", "executive focus", "executive roadmap", etc.

Whatever it is called, to be truly useful this crucial part of a document should always be written FIRST, never as an afterthought.




Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or even third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. His new book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional will be published in March 2010, and will be available from and other online booksellers. Contact: or



Reports I have written:

For your consideration...


Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



Have you subscribed to my weekly newsletter yet?

As a subscriber you get kept up-to-date on when new articles are added.

Twitter Mastery for Business - subscribe and it's yours for free!Subscribe now! and receive a free version of my $79 report, Master the Art and Science of Twitter for Business.

It's the first in a series of reports I'm writing on how to master the various key elements of social media.

Each report is an-depth, step-by-step process that explains in clear, plain English how to master a particular social media tool and help your business communicate better for better business results.

Each report is easy to read, easy to implement and easy on the pocket -- just $79 per copy.

But as a new subscriber to my blog and newsletter, I'm giving you a copy of the free version of Master the Art and Science of Twitter for Business report as a way of saying "thank you" for joining my community.

Please subscribe, then check for the email you will receive from me shortly after, because in the email will be details of how to download the report [1.2mb pdf]

Subscribe now!

Enter your Email

Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz

If you would like to use any of the articles on this site that I have personally written (they will either have 'By Lee Hopkins' on them, or nothing at all) please feel free to do so as long as you include the following 'resource box' text and a link back to

"Lee Hopkins the author of over 130 articles on business communication, and is recognised world-wide as one of Australia's leading experts in online business communication, including Social Media or Web2.0 as it's also known.

To connect with him, please email him at Lee at

Visit his site at to find many more articles on business communication. He also blogs at Whilst there, why not pick up a complimentary copy of his 'Master the Art and Science of Twitter for Business', which explains all about this latest seismic change to the business communication landscape!" Platinum AuthorCreative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Finally, if this site or any of the articles have been of any help to you, perhaps you'd like to say 'thank you' by throwing a few pennies my way. If so, please click on the button below and donate whatever you feel is appropriate. The payment is handled by PayPal and is extremely secure. Thanks.




Follow me on TwitterFollow me on FacebookFollow me on LinkedInFollow me on YouTubeFollow me on Google+


Subscribe to my newsletter now and be the envy of world presidents

Subscribe to my weekly business communication newsletter and receive a FREE version of my highly-regarded report, 'Master the Art and Science of Twitter for Business' (that sells for $79)
Find out more...


Related material :


Better Business Writing course

A 12-step plan to take you from Twitter newbie to Twitter supremo and grow your business in the process.

More details


Better Business Writing

Better Business Writing course

You’ve probably always wanted to improve your writing skills in your workplace, but perhaps there wasn't a training course around to help you.

Well, now there is.

More details

Turn Guesstimates into Estimates & close more sales!

Award-winning ProposalKit gives your clients the detailed price quote and proposal they need so YOU close more sales (and boost your bottom line!) Finally you can quote with accuracy, increasing your profitability and professionalism. ProposalKit is easy, customizable, proven, and downloadable now!

Social Media White Paper
(3rd Edition)

Social Media book for free

Trevor Cook and I wrote a booklet to help our clients and friends come to grips with this new online phenomenon called 'Social Media' or 'Web2.0'. Now in its third edition, it is still being widely cited and is receiving lots of favourable comments.

Download your free copy now (pdf)

Find out more about it (opens new window)

Vodburner rocks!
Vodburner is my tool of choice for recording skype video calls, either for later podcasting or simply for my own record. Now that video is becoming more and more important, I can't imagine online life without it.
More about Vodburner...

What you say about Lee Hopkins:

"One of the best days I've spent with a man! "

"As a speaker, Lee and his alter ego in the guise of avatar 'Lee Laperriere' played a key role in making our virtual event in Second Life a success. Lee was well-researched, engaging and enthusiastic about the possibilities that virtual collaboration brings and his presentation showed that he had really thought about the needs of our audience"

"Wow - what a presentation, it went so well, thank you very much! Fantastic job! "

"Lindy and Lee, you were both brilliant and I'm very thankful and pleased for your efforts, it was excellent. Thank you. "

"One of Australia's leading public relations practitioners in the so-called new media"

"While I only had the pleasure of actually meeting Lee face-to-face several months ago, I have been aware of him in conference programs and through feedback from one of my team members for a while. Lee has an amazing and unique skill for managing the new media to support business outcomes"

"Oz's best social network strategist"

"As for Local Royalty, you really are a Superstar among the bloggers and blogosphere!"

"Lee Hopkins, one of Australia's most respected social media experts"

"Lee was very entertaining and knowledgeable. He demystified social media for me and he made me feel it IS possible."

"His enthusiasm is infectious - exciting stuff!"

"Excellent. A really fascinating insight from an engaging speaker."

"A very difficult topic but it was explained in a fantastically simple way."

"The Walkleys relies on the good will of Australia’s talented communicators to make events like these happen and I can’t thank you enough for taking time out from your heavy schedule to make the convention such a memorable event."

"The workshop was very useful in that it enabled us to directly relate what we learnt in the seminar to our business. Lee was very easy to relate to and he presented all the information in a way that was simple to understand."

"Informative and engaging - gave good overview of new on-line technologies and how they can be applied to businesses. Particularly valued the opportunity to have a separate session to look at the specific needs and potential uses for my own business."

"Great to talk to someone who is expert in their field and passionate."

"The ability to interact one on one with Lee, as well as seeing new technologies and how they can be easily implemented into current business processes [was great]"

"Great. Lee was very engaging and presented info in easy to understand language and examples. Use of music, video, PowerPoint etc keep contents fun and educational. Great stuff!"

“Great! Even I could understand and appreciate the content. Excellent examples, wonderful presentation. I’m going back to share with my team. Thank you. "

“Lee was a great facilitator and his energy and passion for social media was evident."

“Excellent, enthusiastic presenter who is right into what he is talking about. Walking the talk. Just the right amount of info about the different topics. Not too geeky. Strong emphasis on how the tools can assist effective business communication. Relaxed friendly atmosphere. The workshop opened lots of doors, stimulating. I’m strongly encouraged to try things out. Many thanks.”

“Lee was great – knowledgeable, enthusiastic, generous in sharing his expertise. I liked the demonstrations."

"Great Workshop... helped me crystalise my thoughts on social media and now I feel ready to develop the strategy and make use of this great new medium"

Would you like me to run a workshop in-house for YOUR company?

Contact me to discuss how we can bring your company into this new and exciting communication universe.

View many of the presentations I have given over at Slideshare

View leehopkins's profile on slideshare

Why does employee communication matter?

Why does employee communication matter?

Download a presentation I gave to a group of PR students on slideshare

For your consideration:


Your special audio report on VOIP is here!

Free VOIP report





Your special audio report on website design is here!

Free Website design report




"I communicate therefore I am"
CommsCafe mug
Available in medium and large mug sizes. You KNOW you want one!



CommsCafe mug

Available in men's and women's fittings. You KNOW you want one!

Writing for a web audience

Netwriting Masters CourseWant to write more powerfully for a web audience?...
Right-click on this image and download the pdf file to your computer's hard drive.
"The definitive guide to writing for the web"
says Lee