A Great Executive Summary

One of the most important things you can do for your career is to keep your boss in the loop. He wants to be informed of your progress and be able to report up to his boss, if need be.  How can you do that without overwhelming him with details?  The well-written Executive Summary is an art form that will pay big dividends if you can master it.

First, why summarize at all?  Why not just give your boss access to all the reports on your intranet site, or make hard copies of everything?  First, because they simply won’t get read.  Chances are, your boss will just ask for a meeting or written summary of the project anyway.  You look smart and proactive if you provide the short version first and offer access to the background documentation and  other reports only if he asks for it.

I almost always start a project by doing a one page summary of what we hope to accomplish and the steps we’ll take to get there.  It’s a helpful tool for organizing my own thoughts about what to do first, and it’s useful for recruiting people to the working team or asking for resources.  Trust me –  you’ll use the summary many times over the course of the project.

Here are some tips for writing a great project summary:

  • Keep your summary to one or two pages.  One page is ideal, but it’s important to leave room for white space, which makes it more readable, and for graphics if needed (charts, tables, etc.)  Any information after page two stands a 75% chance of being ignored.
  • E-How (www.ehow.com) offers this tip on length: “Plan to create a summary each time you write a business report exceeding four pages. Write the summary after you write the main report, and make sure it is no more than one-tenth the length of the main report.”
  • Use plenty of bullet points; they make your writing easy for follow and draw attention to important points.  Bold headers and other formatting will help guide your boss through the document and boost his comprehension.
  • Avoid superlatives and other editorial comments (“We have done some terrific background research.”) Your boss may not agree with your enthusiastic judgment, and you may be letting yourself in for disappointment.  On the other hand, if your work really is worthy of a superlative, you’ll give him the chance to compliment you on the quality of your work.

When I forward a project summary, I always invite comment – “your input is welcome” is my usual line.  Inviting people to add their wisdom to yours shows that you’re open to new ideas and secure in your own position as a project manager.  Sometimes, you even get ideas that make a difference and help you head off mistakes.

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