(This article was originally published on 7/4/2017 and updated on 05/16/2023)
There is so much dissent surrounding the executive summary of a proposal— Where does the executive summary go? How long should an executive summary be? How do you format an executive summary? These uncertainties can add to the already stressful task of getting a winning proposal written, designed, and delivered to the prospective client on time. It’s time to set things straight.
What is an executive summary?
The executive summary is arguably the most valuable component of any proposal. It serves as an introduction, allowing readers to quickly get acquainted with your proposal by outlining what’s to come. It gives you an opportunity to sell your proposed solution and explain why the prospective client should choose you over the competition.
The purpose of an executive summary
First of all, the term “executive summary” needs a rebrand. The name itself speaks of stuffy suits, boring, jargon-filled reports, and boardrooms filled with cigar smoke and people ready to say no.
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 the purpose of an executive summary is to explain the entire proposal in 250 words. But it’s not.
The real purpose of an executive summary is to engage your prospective client. It helps the prospect quickly decide 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.
The executive summary of your proposal 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 potential client’s problem, they may only read this one page and then flip to your pricing table.
That’s why this section needs to be specific and persuasive, with a focus on results and benefits of your company/product/service, rather than describing features. You can save the features for the body of the proposal.
When should you write the executive summary?
Whether you write the executive summary before or after the rest of the proposal is as contentious as the debate about the best part of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: the chocolate or the peanut butter.
Some people feel that 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 for members of your team who are tasked with preparing sections of the proposal, ensuring 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 you’ve had a chance to work through the objectives and the solutions, and you’ll have a better idea of what to say and how to say it. Plus, things may have changed since you first started the proposal, so you might need to adjust your approach.
How to format an executive summary
The format of an executive summary is an important consideration that many people overlook. What do you include? How do you arrange the sections? To help you get started, here are the components of a good proposal executive summary:
The Opener: Capture their attention
You need an opener that's compelling. A way to get the potential 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 company’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 prospect and their challenge, not on you and your company.
The Proposed 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. The prospect 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 your prospect 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 how and why you're qualified to do so. Demonstrate what sets you apart and why they should choose you over the competition.
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 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 Examples
Without further adieu, here are four (fictional) business proposal executive summary examples that will get your prospects excited to work with you.
1. Example of Ecommerce Executive Summary
Prospect: Gyuto -- Japanese chef knife brand
Sender: ThinkBig -- Shopify design agency
Project title: Shopify ecommerce Proposal
Gyuto sells what is arguably the coolest line of artisanal, sustainably-sourced kitchen knives in the world. They're handmade in Japan, capable of slicing tomatoes as thin as paper, and surprisingly affordable, considering the attention to detail. But as impressive as Gyuto knives are, you've got a static website that merely showcases low-res photos of your product line and requires customers to pick up the phone and place orders manually.
As you're well aware, placing orders manually is not sustainable. It’s severely limiting your potential for sales, and it's negatively affecting the way your customers perceive and experience the Gyuto brand. You need an ecommerce store so that customers can easily buy products from you directly at any time, from anywhere, however they want. This is the only way to grow your business online.
Lucky for you (and 1,000,000 other retailers around the world) there's Shopify. Shopify is an awesome hosted ecommerce app that empowers retailers with an easy-to-use, easy-to-manage, customizable online store and secure checkout. Shopify gives you control over the look and feel of your store and allows you to add products, manage inventory, track sales, and more. It's hassle-free ecommerce that allows you to focus on other aspects of your business.
We'll focus on implementing Shopify and leveraging its features to help drive Gyuto revenue and improve your customer experience. We'll also include powerful search and categorization so customers can easily and quickly find what they're looking for. We use best practices so that product pages convert users to add more items to their shopping cart. And then, most importantly, we’ll guide people down the conversion funnel to complete the checkout process. With this solution, we aim to grow your monthly sales by 50% within the next six months.
Here at ThinkBig, we're proud to be Shopify experts. That means we're among an elite group of developers who have been trained and approved by Shopify to help businesses like yours grow their online presence. Our Shopify status only enhances our already extensive knowledge of ecommerce trends, functionality, customer behaviour, and design. We've helped many businesses transform underperforming sites to an all-out sales boom just by improving their online shopping experience.
We love working with companies like Gyuto. Those who embrace the changes required for growth while still honouring their brand values and customer loyalty. With this attitude, a partnership with ThinkBig can transform Gyuto from mom and pop shop to family-run global online enterprise in a way that is manageable, sustainable, and profitable. We've done it for superstar brands like Dollar Shave Club, and for soon-to-be star brands like Rum Runners Rum Cake Factory.
If you're ready to increase your monthly sales by 50% in 6 months, we're ready to take you there. This proposal outlines in more detail how we'll do it, and what you can expect along the way. But your biggest expectation should be one of success.
As you can see, ThinkBig addresses all five aspects of a winning executive summary. They focus on the client with the opener, identify the prospect's need in the second paragraph, offer a solution with evidence to back it up, and include a clear call-to-action. While this sample executive summary is on the longer side, it tells the prospect exactly why ThinkBig is right for the job before they even get to the meat of the proposal.
2. Example of Marketing Executive Summary
Prospect: Pete’s Pizzeria -- Toronto pizza restaurant
Sender: uGrow -- Social media marketing agency
Project title: Social Media Marketing Proposal
Pete’s Pizzeria has been our favorite restaurant since the very first day we moved our offices to Toronto. The crispy-yet-fluffy crust is to die for, the sauce is otherworldly, and don’t even get us started on that fresh buffalo mozzarella you use. Surely this isn’t the first time you’re hearing this, but we have a feeling that you don’t hear it often enough. We noticed that you don’t have much of a social media presence, which is unfortunate because we think that everyone in the city should be lining up to eat at Pete’s Pizzeria.
If you weren’t already aware, social media is one of the most effective ways to expand your reach and grow your business. Without it, you’re leaving a giant, untapped pool of potential customers on the table and you risk losing existing, hungry customers to other restaurants that they follow. What you need is a social media marketing strategy to showcase your delicious restaurant in order to increase sales and customer loyalty.
Fortunately, uGrow can help. We’ll leverage Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to get your name out to millions of users. Here’s how: First, we’ll get you set up on each of the platforms and work with you to establish the Pete’s Pizzeria brand and voice. Then, we’ll take some stunning pictures of your food and write captions with trending hashtags. After that, we’ll create a consistent content calendar and posting schedule to maximize engagement. And to top it all off, we’ll manage all of the accounts to grow follower counts and increase traffic to your website. With this approach, we expect to increase your sales by 25% before year end.
At uGrow, we specialize in helping small, Toronto restaurants like Pete’s Pizzeria reach their full potential and grow their business. We’ve worked with over 75 restaurants across the city and throughout the GTA, and every one of our clients saw an increase in sales within three months of us taking over their social media. We’ve had several posts go viral, which resulted in our clients’ restaurants being completely sold out for the following weeks. All this to say: we love Pete’s Pizzeria and want to help you get the attention you deserve.
If you’re interested in increasing your sales by at least 25% by the end of the year, we can make it happen. This proposal goes into more detail on how exactly we plan to execute on your social media marketing strategy, and what you can expect once we start. Let’s get Pete’s Pizzeria trending.
In this sample executive summary, uGrow does a great job at playing to Pete’s Pizzeria’s pain points (whew!), and offers specific solutions and outcomes to build credibility with the prospect. uGrow also makes a great use of social proof to demonstrate its effectiveness with evidence from past clients.
3. Example of Cleaning Services Executive Summary
Prospect: ELC Holdings -- Property management company
Sender: CLEAND -- Commercial cleaning services company
Project title: Cleaning Services Proposal
With over 15,000 rentals in 3 states, ELC Holdings is one of the biggest property management companies in the midwest. Your growing portfolio of residential and commercial properties is seriously impressive, but we heard you could use some help keeping your commercial spaces in good shape. As people begin to return to the office, it’s essential that your properties are clean, safe, and compliant to public health guidelines.
As you know, maintaining commercial spaces is no walk in the park. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean even one floor, let alone 4. And that’s just one of your many buildings. But now more than ever, it’s important that your spaces are well-maintained so that your tenants feel safe and secure. It’s not an easy task, especially if you lack the staff and equipment. This is why you need commercial cleaning services.
Having spent over 25 years in the cleaning services industry, we’ve built an experienced team and an arsenal of cleaning equipment that will leave your building absolutely spotless. We offer daily, weekly, and biweekly cleaning arrangements to ensure that your buildings are always in perfect shape for your tenants. From the carpets to the ceilings and everything in between, we can help you clean and sanitize every last corner of your properties so you can rest assured that your tenants are happy.
CLEAND specializes in commercial cleaning services, and has worked with over 200 businesses across the Midwest. We currently have contracts with the United Center and the Auditorium Building in Chicago, and haven’t had a single complaint in the 10 years they’ve been using our services. We provide consistent, reliable results, and stand by our commitment to quality. In fact, if you aren’t happy with our services, we’ll pay the first month’s bill if you switch to another cleaning services company.
ELC Holdings is one of the biggest property management companies in the Midwest, and CLEAND is one of the best cleaning services companies in the area. What do you say we join forces? This proposal outlines how our services could benefit your company, and details what to expect if you choose to seize this opportunity.
This sample cleaning services executive summary immediately highlights the prospect’s pain points and explains why CLEAND is uniquely positioned to help relieve them. It incorporates all five components of a well-written executive summary and even highlights different service offerings before the prospect digs into the solutions section of CLEAND’s cleaning services proposal.
4. Executive Summary Template Example
Here's an example of an executive summary made using a customizable proposal template from Proposify's gallery.
Of course every executive summary needs to be tailored to your specific project, your potential 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.
Executive summary tips: The Do’s and Don’ts
Some other important points and guidelines to keep in mind when writing your executive summary:
Do: use a template for your executive summary
Getting started is the hardest part of writing a proposal executive summary. If you’re struggling to get the ball rolling, consider using a business proposal template that includes a sample executive summary. This can help ensure that you cover everything an executive summary should include.
Don’t: make it too long
Some people recommend that the executive summary should be 10% of your entire proposal, but it’s best if you 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 is especially important 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 people if they’re not familiar with the same terms.
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. 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. After all, the executive summary is about your prospective client, not about you. However, if it is appropriate and relevant, put it in the body of the proposal under “About Us” or something.
Do: focus on your prospective 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 potential client’s company name
People like to hear their names and the same holds true for businesses. Make sure you reference your prospect’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 at 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 be persuasive. Here are some more writing tips for writing an effective business proposal.
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.
We hope this executive summary 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.