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What is an Executive Summary?

written by: pms19650•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 9/19/2010

A good executive summary can make a lasting impression and improve your business image. It can even get that loan you need faster.

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    The Purpose of an Executive Summary

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    An executive summary is essentially an abstract of a business document. It allows executives reading it to get an idea of the outcome of the examination without reading all the contents of the document. It simply saves time. The name probably originated from the fact that a quick examination of business documents was needed most by business executives. These people simply don’t have time to sit down and read a 20-page document when all they need to know can be summarized in a simple paragraph. An example follows of how this summary could be used.

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    An Example Of An Executive Summary

    In a cost-benefit analysis document examining the pros and cons of building an expansion for a highly successful restaurant, an executive summary could be a big time saver. The chief decision maker can be told rather quickly what the key findings were.

    The final part of the report covers whether such an expansion is recommended. In the restaurant business, the appearance of being busy is good for the business. This means crowds. Crowds are not as evident in a bigger space. In fact, the same amount of people could be misconstrued as “empty" in a larger space. Customers often refuse to eat at an empty restaurant. Many people automatically fear the food is no good or unhealthy.The other side of this argument is that customers get tired of waiting for 20 – 40 minutes to get their seats. It seems a pain or a bother to visit such a popular place.

    In such a situation, the level of complexity of the cost-benefit analysis could be very high. All considered factors must be placed in the main document, like industrial psychology, financial returns on investment, anecdotal evidence from regular customers, and management considerations for the additional space. All of the factors should be weighed carefully before proceeding with the business decision.

    But the executive summary exists so you can get a decent summary in 3 – 5 minutes. Completeness is a must even in the summary. The conclusion of the executive summary should be very similar to the conclusion of the entire examination. The key issues in the executive summary should shine through to the reader. Obviously monetary considerations are always a key input variable. Payback is another critical output variable. How long will it take the additional business to justify the expansion? Does the business show variability? If the business is virtually always flat, how can you justify additional seats? Will those seats be empty? How will customers know you expanded and their wait times will be shorter? Do you have a mailing list to let them know? How will you handle these issues? Which problem goes into your summary and which does not? This is your call.

    Please remember the core functions of an executive summary are:

    • Succinct communication (brief)
    • Summary of key outcomes
    • Sets reader expection of the business document

    These are a few rules of thumb to remember while writing an executive summary.

    The executive summary condenses key business questions down to a single critical path and recommended course of action, based on the facts available. This describes an executive summary, how it works and what it is all about.