In A Nutshell

"Few writers think of the messages they are trying to communicate in a report."

--Bruce Ross-Larson, Riveting Reports, p. 30


I am indebted to former students for many of the ideas suggested in this link.

Executive Summaries Provide the Essence

Executive summaries complete the report, whether an analytical report memo or whatever. Executive summaries are the parts of the reports that are read first. Readers may not even get to the detail in your report. They read the executive summaries to see if the rest of the report is worth reading.

Executive Summaries Are Called Different Names

Executive summaries go by so many different names. Sometimes the executive summary is called an Abstract. You usually find that designation in scientific papers and academic efforts. You can also call the Executive Summary simply a Summary. If you call the Executive Summary a precis, you are probably misnaming it. A precis is usually a sentence summary.

Abstracts Differ from Executive Summaries

Abstracts differ from executive summaries, because abstracts are usually written for a scientific or academic purpose. You see abstracts related to scientific lab reports. You see abstracts related to databases, where a summary or abstract of the article is given. Abstracts, according to Janis Ramey in "How to Write a Useful Abstract," fall into this kind of structure:

That is a well-written abstract. You say what you have to say, and stop.

Executive Summaries Briefly Cover Every Main Section

In this class we are going to include the Introduction (Issue, Purpose, Scope and Limitations, and Alternatives), Significant Considerations, Analysis and Decisions in the executive summary. The executive summary will probably be one or one and one-half pages by the time you finish writing. The executive summary will appear after the transmittal memo and just before the first page of the analytical report memo.

In the executive summary you will probably want to put the Issue (Problem) and Purpose in the first paragraph. The Scope and Limitations as well as the Alternatives (Procedures) will go in the next paragraphs. The Significant Considerations, Analysis, and Decisions will comprise the final paragraphs.

Normally, your executive summary (with double spacing) will run about one to one-half pages of copy. You should make sure you only put in significant Considerations, Analysis, and Decisions.

Proportionate Spacing Is Devoted to Executive Summaries

Business writing students often ask this question about executive summaries: How long should they be? Here, you have to think about proportion of the summary to rest of the report or document. For example, in a five-page analytical report memo, you probably would devote one to one and one-half pages to the summary. In the 9/11 Commission Report, a 30-page executive summary was conceived. Think of the length of this two-year prepared report: 428 pages and with the 1,700 footnotes and appendices, 567 pages. Thomas H. Kean and Lee Hamilton (co-chairpersons of the 9/11 Commission) in their book, Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission remarked about their need for an executive summary and its wordiness:

"Because of the word limit imposed on our report, we had to condense all of our work into a digestible 30-page executive summary that could stand out on its own as a separately published document. This document would prove essential in the days and weeks after our report came out, as it was often the reference point for members of Congress and their staff during hearings on our recommendations." (p. 296)

The next time you have to deal with length, always think of proportion. If I have a 10-page report, how long should the executive summary be?

You are probably saying: please show me an executive summary. With that thought, I will provide you such a document:


Work demands and family responsibility have increasingly come in conflict as mothers have become a large part of the workforce, and fathers have begun to share in the caregiving responsibilities. Working parents at B. Insurance Agency need to care for their children. What benefits can be obtained from the employer and employees by encouraging B Insurance Agency to provide a daycare center during working hours? Child care programs can benefit employers by decreasing absenteeism, providing higher productivity, and having a lower turnover rate. Developing a program at work can make it easier for parents to balance their work and family responsibilities at B Insurance Agency.
This report involves Thousand Oaks, possible child care, and an insurance company called B. Insurance Agency. Surveys are given to employees, and three interviews occur with a working parent and two managers.
The 19 completed surveys indicated if employees have child care needs and what these needs are. The survey also specified how the company is affected. Nine employees (47 percent) missed a full day during the past six months because of child care difficulties or because the child was sick. Ten (53 percent) employees had a minor problem with the ability to do the job well and the level of stress experienced. Over half of the employees (n=14) have children under the age of 12 and usually needed child care during the work hours. Twelve employees (63 percent) think one of the most important requirements is the need for more employees than ever before to handle child care while they work.
Unscheduled absenteeism reported to supervisors as being caused by illness or personal problems, in some cases, caused the underlying difficulty with child care. Difficulty with child care is considered to be the third largest cause of absenteeism in the company. Tardiness provided sufficient cause for nine employees from commuting delays because child care is inconveniently located.
For this selected sample, respondents support and prefer care to be located at or near work. Child care programs can be an effective management tool that serves the goals of both the company and the program participants as well. Company centers are one of the more expensive options for employers, but these centers represent the greatest potential for solving a wide variety of child care needs if properly designed.
Setting up a daycare program on site at B. Insurance Company can be accomplished as a non-profit organization with a board of directors consisting of parent and company representatives.

Comments: The previous executive summary is well written, but it has some flaws that should be noted. In the Analysis ("For this selected sample . . .") the point should be more strongly driven home about parental involvement. That will further make the Decisions or Recommendations ("Setting up . . .") stand out. Of course, many sentences that have "is" and "are" need power verbs. For example, the sentence starting "The scope of this report is . . .," could read: "This report concerns B. Insurance Agency located in Thousand Oaks and its attempts to establish a daycare center.

Notice how the writer has cleverly mentioned over half by saying in parentheses, n=14. Did you note that the executive summary did not start with the question? It started with the theme and perspective to prepare the reader for the problem question. Did you read how strongly worded and clearly stated was the problem question? The problem question still remains the heart of the report, including the executive summary.

All main sections of the report were covered in the previous executive summary. Only the major percentages of significance were included in this executive summary. The reader can look at this executive summary without even reading the report.

Strong Beginnings Encourage Good Reading

Executive summaries demand special attention. The first sentence must grab and keep the reader. You cannot afford to start your executive summary with one of the following approaches: