An Executive Summary Formula That Works
If you struggle to write a crisp and compelling executive summary quickly, I have a formula you can follow. Use it to help you position your solution, service and company as the only choice.
Who Reads Executive Summaries Anyway?
But first, Dear Reader, we need to get a few things out of the way:
I’m going to say that most executive summaries aren’t very good. Partly because they’re written in the 11th hour, partly because people don’t have a formula to write one, but mostly because of these three reasons:
You don’t believe it will make an iota of difference to help you win or cause you to lose the pursuit (So why bother?)
You believe that decision-makers don’t read executive summaries anymore (Who would bother?)
You don’t enjoy the task of writing, especially sweating a high-level narrative that clearly links your offer to the client’s goals or big mission (Such a bother!)
My only question is, “Would you like to position your company in the best light across all your interactions with current and prospective clients?”
Of course, you would.
So, think of your executive summary as the opportunity to double-down on why the client should unequivocally choose you over the competition.
With that out of the way, here is:
An Eight-Step Executive Summary Formula
Intro: Start with the client
Your point of view about their situation
Summarise strategic benefits you’ll bring
Your team: bios and experience
High-level solution strategy
How will you deliver?
Close: Prove your commitment
What’s Different About This Formula?
Capabilities v features: Over the years, there’s been resistance from some to follow this formula because they believe the executive summary should mostly outline the solution. However, C-suite decision-makers are interested in the outcomes your solution can enable and not the nuts and bolts of your product or service.
Have team = commitment: The other area of resistance is inserting specifics about the team that will either implement the solution or support the client ongoing. The main excuse from the vendor is they don’t want to commit their best resources at the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage in case they don’t win. However, it’s a weakness as clients perceive the vendor as not invested in their success. The way to overcome this dilemma is to insert people’s names and role descriptions with a caveat that the names might change, but the quality of the personnel will not. And if you don’t yet have any personnel, at least provide specifics on the types of roles and years of experience these people will have if you were to win this piece of business.
The Formula In Detail
(1) Intro: Start With The Client
The introduction must entirely focus on the client, and you need to make every word count in your opening sentence. For example, “As a payment company leading the charge to transform banking, you could continue on the same path...”
Other ideas for your opener include asking a provocative question, imagining a bright future for them because of your solution (without mentioning your solution) or opening with a statement relating to their industry.
And, if you’re still writing the following opener, it’s time to stop: “This is our response to your request for ABC… or the sycophantic, “Thank you for the opportunity to submit this proposal.” Both are a 1980s old-style way of starting an executive summary; boring and lazy to boot.
(2) Your point Of View About Their Situation
As part of your opening statement, you want to home in on one or two of their strategic challenges or objectives your solution will overcome or enable.
You mustn’t regurgitate what they already know – like copy and paste what they write about regarding their challenges or objectives in the RFP or elsewhere.
Don’t mention your company or solution yet, talk about the capabilities they’re looking for from a vendor.
“…However, with COVID further unbalancing the retail sector, shifting focus to your new product lines will let you target customers beyond merchants and sellers, and will protect international expansion plans of your core payment business.
(3) Summarise Strategic Benefits You’ll Bring
At this point, introduce your company and show how its capabilities will support the client to meet its strategic goals.
Make sure you understand what results they’re looking for and speak to them. You must directly link your capabilities to their business and technical imperatives.
This section is also where you will introduce your unique promise of value. However, this can be dangerous if you haven’t tested this with the customer earlier. Are you sure, you know what they truly value? Is it to compete aggressively under the radar? Upend the industry with an innovative product? Slash operating costs while innovating rapidly? Unify and centralise operations to make them nimble? Empower teams and customers through automation? Diversify? Protect their IP and make them untouchable?
Let’s say your client is a healthcare provider that wants to become the most forward-thinking healthcare operator while dramatically cutting costs. Your promise of value might read like this:
“As a healthcare provider passionate about improving people’s quality of life, investment in our artificial intelligence (AI) for hospitals, will leapfrog you into the forefront of preventive medicine. Significantly, we estimate our solution will reduce your high administration costs, anywhere between 30% to 60% within the first three to five years.”
(4) Provide Proof
The highest level of proof is customer success stories and testimonials.
The best customer success stories are companies of similar size, industry, and operate in a similar region or same country as the client in your current RFP.
Other types of proof are number of customers, number of qualified staff, analyst rankings, and research supporting your claims.
(5) Your team: Bios And Experience
In an executive summary, bios are one to two sentences long, and you should customise your team’s experience and qualifications to what the client is looking for in this proposal.
If you only get one page to write your executive summary, write a brief bio on the lead program director and for the rest of the team say something like this, “Our supporting team are all SAP awarded experts who have more than 10 years of experience implementing complex ERP systems.”
(6) High-Level Solution Strategy
This is where you summarise your solution strategy and inherent financial benefit. You must align it to the client’s overall business strategy or technical strategy (if the proposal is more focussed on that).
If your executive summary is only one page, one to two sentences on the solution strategy is enough. If your executive summary is between 3-5 pages, several paragraphs or a page is fine.
Unless a client’s internal IT team has written the RFP, a high-level solution strategy is not overly technical. It focusses on outcomes and future benefits.
Let’s say, you’re offering a large retailer an online channel, the solution strategy might read like this:
“To support your commitment to delivering amazing customers experiences 24/7, we offer a modern customer engagement solution based in the cloud with network capability. It comes with a fully-fledged sales solution capable of handling the entire sales cycle: pricing, quotes and orders. Benefits envisaged: increased sales from current customers, ability to penetrate new markets, and improved visibility of your entire customer engagement cycle, which will allow you to better anticipate and react to evolving customer demands.”
Depending on your reader, they may not care about what digital solution you’ll use, but if they do, add that in. You can add other information like security, reliability and availability but be brief. Again, it depends on how influential the CIO and his team are in the decision-making process.
It’s also important in this section to cover the cost-benefit of your solution as this will be something the CFO will closely review. Of course, this is difficult to do so it’s vital to be straightforward and conservative about financials because we all know it’s almost impossible to measure ROI. What you should avoid are fluffy, generic claims like, “boost cost efficiency”, “lower your overall IT expenses”, “minimise additional expenditures”, or improve cost agility”. Stick with facts and be clear. My point is when it comes to IT investments right now, decision-makers will be scrutinising more the financial benefits. If you can prove this, then laying it out in a simple table without succumbing to weasel words, will be well regarded.
(7) How Will You Deliver?
This is about explicitly articulating how you will deliver: resources/people, plans/schedules and timelines—the ‘how’ is tricky as you need to be specific enough yet not too detailed. There can be no doubt of your capability or capacity to deliver under tight timeframes, or when the going gets tough as it can when implementing complex solutions requiring strong collaboration between buyer and vendor.
If room, insert up to three examples of successful project delivery. For example: “Implemented digital solutions for a global retailer in 2019, moving 50% of their operations from bricks and mortar to online. Delivered within six months, on-time and on-budget.”
I would spend more time talking about the how and delivery method than the what or solution strategy because the risk of project derailment and cost over-runs is high on people’s mind.
(8) Close: Prove Your Commitment
Don’t’ finish with a bland sign-off extolling the virtues of your company or solution, instead use the concluding paragraph to reaffirm how you will help the client overcome their toughest challenges or fulfil ambitious goals.
Watch out for marketing fluff: Stay away from, “we’re committed to your success”. Prove it. For example, “We’re so committed to your success that we’ve secured our most experienced project director who has managed complex digital projects for five of our top 10 global clients. Additionally, your executive sponsor for this project is our CEO, as we see you as an important strategic partner.”
Have your CEO include a quote specifically saying the buck stops with her/him and promising some added value or risk-sharing.
Offer extra value via leadership roundtables, customer events or access to insightful industry research.
If you’re a small to medium-sized tech company, your proof of commitment can centre on you being nimble and able to pivot to meet your client’s needs quickly. Like larger vendors, you still need to provide specific assurances about how you will do this. For example, offer six yearly, all-day strategy sessions with a respected expert, to help your clients rethink or flex their business model.
What About Price?
Depending on the complexity of the solution and the style of the RFP, many clients will not ask for price or will request you not include it in the executive summary. However, if they do ask for the price, insert it after the solution and just before you close. Keep it high-level.
What Else Should You Think About & Do?
Risk is a major theme for all buyers. It’s important to address risk in your introduction, body and conclusion. What is the risk if they make the change, and how will you minimise it? What is the risk to their business if they do nothing and hang on to the status quo?
Post COVID, the CFO will likely be the most influential decision-maker and reader, so right now, it will be essential to focus on what that person cares about beyond the stereotype of cost-cutting.
Always include a value-type of sub-heading under your main “Executive Summary” heading.
You can’t stop C-suite from scanning your executive summary after they’ve read your opening paragraph. They’re high-level thinkers looking for sections relevant to them. So, make it easy to navigate the document quickly. Add lots of headings and sub-headings, and bullet-point key benefits or bold any statement you want them to read like a cost-benefit figure.
Always write your first draft as an outline. If you go to my Resource page, you can download a template following this formula.
Once you have a solid and fleshed out outline, test it with others and get their ideas as this will improve your persuasive argument. Don’t ask for feedback from key people once you’ve written your executive summary in full – they might tear apart your thinking. It’s much easier to start again when your executive summary is a high-level draft.
Once you’re happy with your completed narrative, go back and spend triple the time finessing your opening paragraphs and reworking or reshaping your closing paragraphs. How you begin and end is super-important because it’s what readers will remember the most.
Proofread multiple times. I provide a Writing Checklist you can download on my Resource page so you can hand over an executive summary that is a compelling and polished piece of writing.
I’ve used this basic formula for over 20 years helping sales teams win deals whether it was for proposals valued between $500,000-$5M, $5M-$10M, $10M-$50M or $50M-$150M. Whatever the value of the proposed solution, this formula has a lot of room for creativity. No two executive summaries I’ve co-authored or guided looked the same.
In future posts, I’ll share some creative ways you can craft executive summaries for maximum impact.
Until then, I hope this formula and supporting tips get your creative juices going and make it easier for you to write executive summaries, you’re proud to submit.