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.

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