Executive summaries are a powerful, yet short document produced to allow its users to make sense of a topic. It is usually 1 to 2 pages long, based off of a large subset of data that has been compiled or analyzed. Although it is mainly used in academia and business settings, this document can be repurposed to a variety of settings, including NGOs and Governments. When done right, it can help executives, managers and subject matter experts quickly disseminate over the data to drive valuable insight and help support decisions.
An executive summary should be written when a lengthy text or data is expected to be more easily searched, disseminated and digestible to its audience.
In academia, executive summaries can help other researchers and students find and determine whether the material is relevant to their interests.
At a business setting, time is money, therefore executives and managers are always looking for an easier way to internally process the results of a piece of work to determine the next steps that should be taken to ensure the organization’s success.
It should also be written after the completion of the main text/data, helping to ensure that it accounts for all the relevant areas that have been written on the main report.
Bullet points are often found in executive summaries and are perceived to be a powerful tool in helping the executive summary be more concise, to the point and easier on the eyes. Keep in mind that there is a fine line between under and overusing bullet points. Below is a sample demonstration of the same one-page document with no bullet points, all bullet points and a balanced approach. Which one feels easier on your eyes?
In most cases, an executive summary should fall in-between one and two pages at most. Many people are already flooded with material to disseminate, thus ensuring that the material is short and concise can be essential.
Executive summaries should be added under the table of content (if available) and before the Introductory page of the lengthier report. It is also possible to have the executive summary as its own document with a link to the lengthier material.
The world is expected to create, capture, copy and consume over 59 zettabytes of data in 2020, with some estimates concluding that an office worker receives an average of 121 e-mails per day. That is a staggering amount of data to process, filter and disseminate in just a single source, let alone the remaining zettabytes in the form of documents, images, etc. From an executive summary perspective, if it is possible to extract valuable information within 5 to 10 minutes as opposed to the lengthy 2-5 hours report, why wouldn’t you?
Time Consumption – An executive summary can be a time-consuming endeavor to its writer, especially in very lengthy and technical work. Organizations and individuals are often constrained with the amount of time it can allocate to the build-out of the report and consequently the executive summary. This can lead to rushed up work that leads to a lower quality of output.
Resource Availability – In some cases, a report may be built by a combination of specialists that may or may not be available to support the creation of the executive summary. This can lead to extra time spent making sense of the material in a way that can be further summarized and may further diminish the quality of the material.
Left-out – The exercise of compressing a report into an executive summary is bound to force the writer to consider cutting bits and pieces that may leave out valuable information from its readers. This can in turn impact the decision-making process in negative ways.
Misreport – Whether on purpose or through no fault of their own, an executive summary may be misreporting the findings of the document. This can lead to misguided decisions that can have a major material impact in the long-run. It is also worth noting that even the document may be misrepresented in some cases.
Executive summaries can be a powerful tool in the delivery of complex topics to its intended target audience. It is expected to be short (1-2 pages), helping to carry the most pressing parts of the lengthier material to help guide future decisions. Ensuring that it is well structured can help facilitate its reading. There are various drawbacks that both the audience and authors should be mindful of when compiling and reading the material. Despite that, its importance remains high in both managerial and academia environments. It should be a major tool in one’s arsenal when delivering results to their respective audiences.