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Business proposals: writing an executive summary

by Tim North

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Published on this site: January 2004 - See more articles from this month

When writing a business proposal, the executive summary is arguably the most important component. You should write it as if the success of the entire proposal rests upon it.

Consider:

  • If your proposal is one of many (or if time is short), a poor executive summary may mean that it's tossed into the reject pile with the remainder unread.

  • If many people are going to read your proposal, some may read the whole thing, but others may make their decision after reading the executive summary alone.

  • Some personality types like to make quick decisions and see this (wisely or not) as being decisive. These types of people may deliberately choose to concentrate on the summary and only flick through the rest.

  • People who lack the technical or financial knowledge to understand the body of your proposal may make a decision based on the executive summary.

  • Readers might not be prepared to say "yes" to your proposal after reading just the executive summary, but they might be prepared to say "no" on this alone.

So given how important your executive summary is, it's important to set out some guidelines for writing it.

GUIDELINE ONE: USE THE CARROT-AND-STICK APPROACH

(Note: The "carrot and stick" metaphor refers to creating a situation where you are motivating someone with both a reward and a punishment.)

Your executive summary should briefly point out the severity of the problem facing the client, the dire consequences of not fixing it, the key features of your solution and the key benefits to the client.

By briefly covering these four things in the executive summary, we're setting up a highly effective carrot-and-stick scenario. That is, we:

  1. Show them the problem.

  2. Tell (or remind) them how terrible it is.

  3. Dangle a solution in front of them.

If you do it right, your executive summary can generate great enthusiasm for reading the rest of your proposal.

This is all material that you'll cover again in greater depth in the main body of the proposal, but you should write your executive summary as if the success of the whole proposal depends upon it. It may.

GUIDELINE TWO: KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Your executive summary should be understandable by anyone. This is not the place to start sprouting financial and technical gibberish.

Keep in mind that people with widely varying backgrounds may read the executive summary (even if they don't read the rest of the proposal). Write it so they can all understand it. If they want more details, they'll look for them in the body of your report.

WHEN USED

Every long proposal (i.e. anything with a title page and a table of contents) needs an executive summary. It's a critical component of your proposal.

LENGTH

It's called a summary for a reason. Don't try to trick people into reading more than they intended by being long winded. A reasonable rule of thumb is as follows:

Proposal Executive Summary

Up to 50 pages 1 to 2 pages
51 to 100 pages 2 or 3 pages
Over 100 pages 3 pages

You'll find many more helpful tips like these in Tim North's much applauded range of e-books. FREE SAMPLE CHAPTERS are available, and all books come with a money-back guarantee. www.BetterWritingSkills.com .

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