To launch, promote, and expand your small business, you’ll need to be able to articulate what makes it special to the people who matter, including consumers in your target market, potential investors, and the media. One of the best ways to do this is through an executive summary.
Read on to learn the role an executive summary plays in a successful business or organization, and how to write an executive summary that perfectly captures your brand and business strategy.
What is an executive summary?
An executive summary is a short document containing the most important information about your business (or, if you’re just starting out, your business model or idea). Executive summaries often appear at the beginning of a longer report or document, such as a business plan or project proposal.
A good executive summary provides a high-level overview of your business that not only provides essential information about your business, but also grabs a reader’s attention.
When to use an executive summary
Executive summaries are written for and used in a variety of contexts, including:
- Business plan
- Project proposal
- Investment proposal
- Public relations/media pitch
- Shareholder report
Regardless of the format or audience, an executive summary typically acts as a “front cover,” offering the key points of the entire document in a way that convinces your target audience to buy, invest, approve, publish, or take some other desired step.
How to write an effective executive summary
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing an effective executive summary, because it always depends on the context and who you’re writing it for. The most important and compelling information changes depending on the scenario.
Put yourself in the shoes of your target audience and consider which information is most important to them. For instance, the executive summary for a proposal for a prospective investor may be more persuasive and forward-looking, with a focus on how profitable you expect your business to be in the future. Meanwhile, an executive summary for market research should highlight some of the findings or results from a more retrospective point of view.
Whatever your overarching purpose, consider the following tips and common mistakes while writing your executive summary.
1. Answer the right questions
Whether you’re writing an executive summary to customers, your management team, or an entirely new audience, make sure to answer the following questions:
- Who are you? Provide a brief company description that explains your brand. Depending on your audience, you may want to focus on what you’ve achieved, or the value and benefits of your products.
- What will your audience learn? Give readers a quick overview of what follows in the larger document: market research, a project plan, or a description of a new business, etc.
- Why should your audience care? Consider why you’ve prepared the larger document. Are you looking to secure funding? If so, what does a potential investor stand to gain?
- What highlights should readers be excited about? Tease some of the most critical information or details to come
2. Keep it concise
The length of your executive summary heavily depends on the context. For example, an executive summary for an entirely new business plan likely will be more detailed than one for, say, a product launch press kit.
In any case, an executive summary generally should not exceed a few pages, or 5% of the overall length of the longer document.
To keep your executive summary short, be sure to include only the main points or key findings of the larger piece, saving any unnecessary background details for later sections. If appropriate, consider using bullet points or graphics to quickly communicate the essentials.
3. Ask someone to edit your summary
Writing an executive summary that convinces decision makers to read your full business plan or proposal is no easy task, and chances are you won’t get it right the first time. With that in mind, editing is an essential step to drafting an executive summary. You might even consider hiring a professional writer to handle it for you.
If you don’t have the time or budget for a professional, consider sending your draft executive summary to a trusted team member, or even someone outside your organization. Be sure to brief them about the purpose of the executive summary and who’s going to be reading it.
4. Write a boilerplate version
As a business owner, you’ll be producing a range of documents, including project proposals, annual reports, press releases, and internal onboarding documents. Rather than reinventing the wheel with each new output, consider preparing an executive summary template to serve as a foundation for each new document. You can then rework this executive summary for more specific purposes.
Remember, your executive summary should set the stage for whatever is to come next. The executive summary is the first impression you give your audience, so think about what you want that impression to be and then craft your summary around that.
4 executive summary examples
Executive summaries can vary from business to business and document to document. Here are a few diverse examples of an executive summary.
Allbirds sustainability report
Allbirds uses an executive summary to describe its mission-driven company as part of its 2021 Flight Status report. Sustainability is a major value of the Allbirds brand, and this report will be read by consumers and investors who are interested in the company’s environmental impact.
Here, Allbirds devotes just a few paragraphs out of 24 pages to its executive summary, which outlines the company’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and highlights the results of its efforts in the previous year.
The summary is short but sweet, offering a concise analysis of the company’s achievements without feeling too self-congratulatory. As an added bonus, Allbirds includes a graph on the next page to communicate its message visually.
Love Your Melon press release
Like most brands, Love Your Melon includes a brief, boilerplate executive summary in every press release, such as this one. Love Your Melon’s executive summary is essentially a company description meant for a wider audience, and has likely been reused for many different purposes.
Here, the executive summary is titled “About Love Your Melon” and describes the brand’s mission to fight pediatric cancer. Love Your Melon also includes specific metrics—always ideal for persuasive purposes, especially because numbers don’t lie—touting its 215,000 gifted hats to children and $8.3 million in donations. Furthermore, the executive summary provides a call to action (CTA) for readers to learn more about the brand on social media.
Amazon annual shareholder report
Amazon provides an example of a much different kind of executive summary with its 2022 proxy statement. Required by law, this document is sent to shareholders, letting them know the date and time of a company’s annual shareholder meeting, as well as what matters will be discussed and voted on.
In addition to these key details, the executive summary for Amazon’s proxy statement also advertises an incentive for shareholders to attend and vote, as well as a timeline of the company’s stock price over its 20-year history.
While this executive summary is longer than other examples, it still takes up only one of more than 100 pages in the overall report.
Cotopaxi impact report
Cotopaxi, another CSR-minded brand, also publishes an annual impact report detailing the contributions it’s made toward social and sustainable goals. For its 2021 Impact Report, Cotopaxi begins with an executive summary divided into two sections. The first section, “About Cotopaxi,” provides a broad overview of the company, including its mission to fight poverty, its corporate footprint, and some financial information.
The second section, “About This Report,” previews what topics readers will learn about in the pages that follow, as well as the sources of the information and limits of the report’s scope and focus.
While relatively dense, Cotopaxi’s executive summary offers readers everything they need to know about the company’s impact and the report’s authority in just two pages.
You’re ready to write your executive summary
Your executive summary is more than just an introduction to a report or document: it serves as the highlight reel that draws your audience in. Writing a persuasive executive summary will undoubtedly take a few tries, but with the advice and examples above, you’ll be well on your way.