The 3 Key Elements of an Executive Summary

Well, the votes are in from last week’s Twitter poll question, “Do Executive Summaries create an incentive or disincentive to read white Paper content?”. Here is how it came out:


By a 3-to-1 margin, voters indicated that they believe Executive Summaries create a greater incentive (48%) to read additional white paper content as opposed to a disincentive (16%). This response is echoed from the various surveys, analyst polls, and customers that I have encountered on the same subject.

But there is a caveat with these results. The second most popular response was “Unsure. It depends on how the Executive Summary is written”, which came in at 28%. What this says is that a poorly written Executive Summary can just as easily create a disincentive to read white paper content as well.

And who can blame the voters for feeling this way? Today, there is as much confusion as to what constitutes a well-written Executive Summary, as there is for what should go into a white paper. For example, take this portion of an Executive Summary page that was featured in a white paper on the weekly Friday FREE White Paper List:


As you can see, this Executive Summary is only ONE Paragraph! This is not only an insufficient amount of information to thoroughly educate a reader about what will appear in the white paper, but it also can have a significant impact with reader engagement. Other poorly written Executive Summaries that I have seen bare little difference from an Introduction page that can lead to greater reader confusion and distraction.

A well-written white paper Executive Summary should contain three important elements:

1. A One-Page Synopsis of the entire white paper that includes bottom line solution advantages. This allows the reader to determine if the benefits gained by the advocated solution will be worth the investment of their valuable and limited time to read the rest of the white paper.

2. An Orderly and Logical Flow of information from broad, high-level industry/market issues, to more detailed problem/solution oriented issues related to the topic. This process makes it easier for a business executive that may not be as familiar with the subject (such as a technical white paper), to either read the entire paper themselves or forward it to another employee/manager that is part of the decision making team.

3. Bottom Line Benefits translated into some form of monetary, time, or resource gain that can be spelled out in greater detail. This doesn’t mean giving away all your goodies up front, but it does mean enticing the reader to read the details behind those gains later in the white paper. For example you can say that implementing the solution will generate a percentage cost reduction in the Executive Summary, and explain the details behind that claim later in the solution section of the paper. Similar to the role of a good movie trailer, if an enticement is made up front, the viewer has a greater chance of seeing the entire film later on.

So if you want to engage today’s busy executive reader into allocating a portion of their valuable time to read your entire white paper, add an Executive Summary and improve your odds of making that happen.

coverthumb If you’d like to learn more about Executive Summaries, stay tuned for my new book which will be released this Fall entitled, “Crafting White Paper 2.0: Designing Information for Today’s Time and Attention-Challenged Business Reader.”

Be Sociable, Share!


    3 Responses to “The 3 Key Elements of an Executive Summary”
    1. Bozo McFarlane says:

      I work for a government consulting firm. Usually we receive a Statement of Work, such as “provide recommendations to reduce lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles.” What elements would such a consultant include in the Exec Summary?

    2. My understanding of a “Statement of Work” is in a bidding process, where the prospective customer KNOWS what they want and is merely seeking a vendor to fulfill those needs.

      The Executive Summary (and to a larger extent, the white paper) is an educational tool where prospective customer may not know all the details surrounding their problem. For example, they may not know the industry/background issues impacting the problem, the scope of other problem issues beyond their own, how to solve them, and what the benefit will be by implementing the advocated solution.

      The Executive Summary, therefore provides a one page synopsis of the ENTIRE white paper for a quick overview. It creates an incentive for the reader to read the rest of the white paper in greater detail.

      A good Executive Summary distills the white paper into four parts:

      1. Situation – what is going on within the industry that is causing the problem
      2. Problem- the specific problem(s) that the customer is experiencing
      3. Solution – a high level overview of how the solution solves the problem(s)
      4. Result – the benefit to implementing the solution and the payback for doing so.

      For more information, please search on Executive Summary in this blog on the right hand side, or you can pick up a copy of my book, Crafting White Paper 2.0 which will teach you how to do it. (




    Check out what others are saying about this post...
    1. [...] #1: Include a one-page “synopsis-style” Executive Summary that summarizes the entire white paper within one entire page. (See hyperlinked [...]

    Leave a Reply

    Tell us what you're thinking...