Saturday, March 25, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 4: Strategy

Approach the executive summary keeping in mind with the following tips:

Consider the executive summary as a whole new document requiring a whole new writing process. First, write the major document without regard for the executive summary. Next, read the document with the summary in mind.

Find the main point and the supporting points. First, reduce the entire document to one concise sentence. Examples:

This proposal recommends an expansion of the Northwest Packaging Facility by 50,000 square feet to accommodate the robotic packagers planned for acquisition in June 2003.

This audit report summarizes the three key operational deficits of the ACFJ Corporation’s accounts payable system, discusses their impact on the business and root causes, and suggests corrective actions for management to consider.

In the first example, an educated reader would assume that the report will offer some detail on the space requirements of the robotic packagers, the limitations of the packaging facility’s current layout, and the proposed floor design for the new 50,000 square feet. In the second example, the reader will likely expect the audit report to follow a set organization:

  • Finding 1, impact, cause, conclusion, and recommendations
  • Finding 2, impact, cause, conclusion, and recommendations
  • Finding 3, impact, cause, conclusion, and recommendations

After you have created that main sentence, find the necessary supporting material. The main headings, subheadings, and paragraph beginnings and endings of a well-written document often provide solid clues as to what you should include in the executive summary.

Ask why the information is important to your audience. You’ll find answering this question a major time and space saver because sometimes management doesn’t want a summary of the entire document (including background, methodology, results, discussion and conclusions), but only of the suggested actions they should take. This may also require you to combine sections and exclude minor points.

Keep whittling away. One publishing executive told me that all executive summaries should pass the elevator test. For instance, imagine that you enter the elevator on the thirtieth floor office of Easy Enterprises, your employer. In your hand is a 100-page proposal that you have labored over the past month. Into the elevator walks your CEO. The following dialogue ensues:

CEO: (Pointing to proposal.) Is that the Busybody proposal I’ve been expecting from you?
You: (Handing it him.) Yes, sir.
CEO: (Not accepting it.) Not now. I’m heading to a meeting. What does it say?
You: Acquiring Busybody Corporation offers Easy Enterprises excellent opportunities to expand market share in the Latin American market by at least 20 percent, or $25 million, within the first year. Since Busybody seeks to liquidate its United States debt and secure much-needed cash before the fiscal year’s end by selling its profitable franchises in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico, Busybody Latin America is ripe for a well below-market purchase price of $10 million. This acquisition would expand our market knowledge, product line, and profit margin in Latin America, establishing Easy as the predominant leader in that region (The elevator door opens on the ground floor.)
CEO: (Rushes away.) Well said. Please give it to my secretary, and I’ll discuss it with the CFO sometime next week. Thanks.

That last statement you made probably contained all the CEO would have needed if he had read your executive summary.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 3: Function and Form

The executive summary should work for your readers in both function and form.

In function it should:
  • provide a complete but brief synopsis of facts stated in the document
  • serve as the first place in the document where most readers would go
  • appear in the beginning of the document
  • work as a stand-alone document

In form it should:

  • reflect the larger document (e.g., issue, discussion, conclusions, and recommendations)
  • consume, on average, less than 10 percent of the entire document
  • use paragraphs to divide summaries of the document’s sections

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: click here:

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 2: Executive Summary vs. Abstract

For people more familiar with writing abstracts than executive summaries, we should start with a brief discussion of both.

The executive summary and the abstract share two purposes:
  • Summarizing. Both documents index for readers the key points of a document.
  • Usefulness. Both help readers decide whether they should read the entire document.

The executive summary and the abstract differ in two significant ways:

  • personal connection
  • professional expectation

Personal connection. The abstract works best in technical fields where the reader understands the complex material in the document. For example, a biochemist friend recently showed me one of her published articles. As soon as I read the abstract preceding her article, I realized that its subject, a thermodynamic analysis of intramolecular electron transfer in trimethylamine dehydrogenase, was intended for the consumption of her fellow researchers or subject-matter experts, not for readers like me who lack the basic knowledge of the principles, particulars, and positions of her field. However, if a drug manufacturer expressed interest in designing artificially engineered proteins, its executives would likely want the biochemist to rewrite the article as a report, tailored to the scope of their business, and to include with it an executive summary of the research to suggest whether they should invest funds in intramolecular electron transfers. Therefore, an executive summary may speak to non-technical audiences about their specific business needs.

Professional expectation. In the scientific or technical world, an abstract may expect nothing from the reader other than to gain the knowledge contained in the article or report. At most, it updates the reader on a breaking development in a specific field of research. True, some researchers may write a rejoinder to the article, but the implied purpose of the abstract is purely to transmit information. On the other hand, an executive summary does expect a reader response. It analyzes a business-affecting issue, draws conclusions about it, and specifically recommends a course of action for management in response to the issue.

Because of these divergent needs of their readers, abstracts tend to fit a formula better than do executive summaries. Words counts are often mandatory for the abstract, regardless the length of the article it describes. In contrast, while executives like to insist that writers keep executive summaries to one page or even one brief paragraph, they may run anywhere from a 50-word prĂ©cis to a 10-page document—depending on the readers’ needs.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Summarizing Successfully, Part 1: Focusing on the Highest Point

Before the start of an Executive Summary Writing class that I was conducting for City of New York managers, one of the participants, Maurice M. Kempis, introduced himself as a sergeant of the New York Police Department working in Quality Assurance (QA). I assumed that by its title, Quality Assurance had something to do with the Division of Internal Affairs (IA), renowned for its investigative work on corruption within the Department.

Sergeant Kempis quickly explained the distinction between QA and IA: “NYPD has three checks: Inspections deals with quality issues like uniforms, Quality Assurance works on contractual issues like vendor requirements, and Internal Affairs deals with criminal issues like corruption.”

What a way to begin an Executive Summary Writing class! In only 29 words, or 13 seconds, Sergeant Kempis successfully explained to a moderately informed audience the division of internal auditing responsibilities within a large, complex organization. With one information-packed sentence, he clearly classified the workings of three alternately autonomous and interdependent units within a bureaucracy.

Executive Summary Writing focuses precisely on this skill of reducing an entire proposal, technical report, or project description to one comprehensive, clear, and concise statement. After hearing Sergeant Kempis’s introduction, I thought he would be a good candidate to help me teach the class!

The next seven installments of WORDS ON THE LINE will provide tips for summarizing successfully. Judging from the increased demand of my clients for teaching summary writing, I trust that you'll find useful information here—so stop by again.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: