I have written, edited, or managed the creation of what feels like a gagillion business proposals in my career, and 90% of the time I had a feeling of dread throughout the whole process. (This was obviously in the dark ages before Proposify existed.)
But nothing compared to the feeling of writing an executive summary.
There is so much dissent about the function of the executive summary — what it should say, what it should do, how long it should be, and whether it be written before or after the body of the proposal — that it can add to the already stressful task of getting a winning proposal written, designed, and out the door to the client on time.
It’s time to change all that. The executive summary is arguably the most valuable component of any proposal. Its purpose is clear, its potential is huge, and putting it together can be straightforward if you change your approach and follow a few simple steps.
I’ll share what I’ve learned about writing an effective executive summary for client proposals. Hopefully, it will make the proposal process less painful, and help you convince anyone on your team who might disagree to follow your lead. Resistance is futile.
The purpose of an executive summary
First of all, the executive summary needs a rebrand. To me, the name itself speaks of stuffy suits, boring, jargon-filled reports, and boardrooms filled with cigar smoke and people ready to say no. But that’s my hangup.
In all seriousness, the word “summary” can be misleading, and this is the first mistake people often make when it comes to writing their executive summary. They think that this is where you explain the entire proposal in 250 words. That you literally ‘summarize’ the proposal by rehashing everything from page one forward.
But in fact, the purpose of the executive summary is to sell your solution to the client’s problem. It should be persuasive, outlining why the client should choose your company. It should be specific and focus on results.
The executive summary needs to be persuasive and highlight the benefits of your company/product/service, rather than being descriptive and focusing on the features. You can save the features for the body of the proposal.
The executive summary needs to grab the reader’s attention and pique their interest. Even though you and your team spent painstaking hours writing this proposal, selecting just the right graphics, and coming up with the best solution for your client’s problem, they may only read this one page and then flip to your pricing table.
The executive summary helps the client decide quickly whether they're going to read the rest of the proposal, pass it on to other decision-makers, or if it's destined for the recycle bin.
So you better make it good.
When to write the executive summary
This issue of whether you write the executive summary before or after the rest of the proposal is as divided as the issue of what’s better about a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, the chocolate or the peanut butter.
Some people feel you should write the executive summary first because it can help you outline your concept and organize your thoughts for the entire proposal. That way it acts as a guide to members of your team who are tasked with preparing sections of the proposal, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page, that the big idea is consistent throughout, and that all necessary components are included.
Others feel strongly that you should write the executive summary after you’ve prepared the rest of the proposal because then you’ve had a chance to work through the objectives and the solutions, and you’ll have a better idea of what you want to say and how you want to say it. Plus things may have changed since you first started the proposal so you might need to adjust your approach.
My suggestion is chocolate AND peanut butter.
I like to write the executive summary first because it helps to filter all the ideas our team had during the brainstorming process about the best way to pitch this client.
With an executive summary written, or at least outlined, I’m more confident about delegating parts of the proposal creation process to different team members because they’ll understand the approach and what they need to do to contribute to a consistent, cohesive document.
Once the body of the proposal is finished, I then go back to tweak the executive summary as needed. Sometimes new ideas rose to the top as we worked through the proposal, or early ideas turned out to be impossible to execute due to the client budget or timeline.
I used to leave writing the executive summary to the end, and since inevitably we were always in a time crunch to deliver the proposal to the client, I would feel anxious and rushed to get it done. But once I started writing a draft of the executive summary at the beginning, it was one less thing to worry about. I could edit the executive summary as needed and I knew there would be no huge surprises in what other team members had prepared.
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How to write an executive summary
Here are the components of a good proposal executive summary:
The Opener: Capture their attention
You need an opener that's compelling. You need to get your client’s attention right away, and you do that by talking about THEM, not about you. Focus on the issue and the result, but be direct, concise, and evocative.
This is the time to hook them in — get them excited about what they’re going to read next.
The Need: We get it
Before a client hires you, they want to know that you get them. You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand. This section of the executive summary is where you demonstrate your grasp of the situation. You could include a bit of your own research or a brief reference to your agency's experience dealing with a similar situation. You should also talk about how the client will benefit from solving the problem - what will change, the positive outcomes, the results.
Again, the focus here is on the client and their challenge, not on you and your company.
The Solution: We’ve got it
Now you’re in the spotlight. This section is where you talk about the brilliant solution you’re proposing and why it will work. But remember, this is just an overview. They can read all the delicious details in the proposal so keep it high level but still provide enough detail to convince them you have something specific and well thought out for them.
This section should start to provide the client with a sense of relief and get them excited about the result.
The Evidence: We can do it
It's time to show your stuff. Talk about why your company, your team, or your product is not only willing to take this challenge on, but you're qualified to do so.
Maybe this is your niche market and you have lots of experience helping other companies with a similar issue. Maybe it’s a particular skill set your team possesses, your research, your algorithm, or your project management process. Or maybe you’ve won 27 Academy Awards for best picture, and you know you can make this a hit.
Talk about WHY you can make this a successful project and deliver results, but (broken record) keep it brief.
The Call to Action: Let’s do it
Keeping in mind that the purpose of the executive summary is to sell, it’s now time to close the deal.
Make the client feel like they have no other chance for happiness than to hire you because of X and Y that differentiate you from the competition and proves your solution is the one that will make their dreams come true.
Talk about why you want to work with them — a little flattery goes a long way — and about how, as partners, you will be successful.
Executive Summary Example
Here's an example of an executive summary I wrote using a customizable proposal template from Proposify's gallery.
Of course every executive summary needs to be tailored to your specific project, your client's needs, and your brand voice. But if you're looking for more inspiration, we have many other business proposal templates that you can customize yourself.
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The Do’s and Don’ts of the Executive Summary
Some other important points and guidelines to keep in mind when writing your executive summary:
Don’t make it too long
Some people recommend a formula that the executive summary is 10% of your entire proposal. I usually try to keep it to one page, two tops if it’s a larger proposal. Be mindful that if you’re working on an RFP, they may already set out a particular length limit, so you’ll want to stick to that.
Don’t use jargon
This rule applies to everything but especially when writing proposals. Jargon can act as a smokescreen to mask the fact that someone doesn’t really know what they’re talking about, or it can confuse clients if they’re not familiar with the same terms. Like, what the hell is ‘next gen’, anyway? Ugh.
Don’t use overly technical language
Unless you are absolutely sure that the only person who will read the executive summary is an engineer or a developer or someone who will understand exactly what you’re talking about, don’t get too technical. Of course in some situations you may need to reference certain details but remember that this is a persuasive document—sell the benefits, not the features. Save the tech stuff for the proposal.
Don’t talk about your company history
The history of your company does not belong in the executive summary, and sometimes I’m not even sure it belongs in a proposal. But if it is appropriate and relevant, put it in the body of the proposal under “About Us” or something.
Do focus on your client
Think about what they want to know, not what you want to tell them. Like any piece of copy, you need to write for your audience so make sure you think about them; what turns them off and what turns them on.
Do mention your client’s company name
People like to hear their names and the same holds true for businesses. Make sure you reference your client’s full company name several times in the executive summary, so they feel like you’re focused on them.
Do use plain language
The regular rules for writing apply to executive summaries. Use simple, short sentences that are clear and can be understood by almost any reading level, especially if you might be writing for people whose first language is not English. Don’t be pretentious - you’ll come off like an ass. Be concise, and persuasive. I’ve found this site helpful for keeping me on track for plain language writing.
Do proofread and edit
This probably goes without saying but you really, really don’t want any typos in your executive summary. Get more than one set of eyes on your document before it goes out, and preferably someone who wasn’t involved in its creation.
I hope this guide will help turn your ho-hum executive summaries into wicked pitches of excellence. Remember to be persuasive, not pedantic. And if anyone has a suggestion on a new name for executive summary, bring it on.