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: