Margaret Greenhall (Author)
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Details of the Report Writing Book
Writing an executive summary, with examples
By Margaret Greenhall
Now the catch phrase for writing reports is:
“It’s all about the reader.”
Your job as the writer is to help your reader extract the information they need as quickly and easily as possible. So a summary right at the start of the document is a vital component of this. It helps the reader get an overview of the content before they put the detail in and also helps them identify which parts of the document will be useful to them. As a guideline I’d suggest any document over 5 pages long should have a summary at the start. Depending on your audience, label your summary as an executive summary or abstract.
||Reading a report is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Many people read without setting questions and just start at the beginning and go all the way to the end. This is like tipping the puzzle on the floor and just grabbing the first piece from the top and then the next and hoping to make sense of it. The trouble is you’ve got nothing to attach them to. Your role as a writer is to help the reader develop a strategy for reading. So most people, if they were doing a puzzle, would find the outsides, then find the easy to identify pieces like a red coat and then finally go for the very detailed pieces of sky. This is what the executive summary does, it gives the reader an overview of what is to come and makes a framework in their mind to fit the rest of the information into.
The other great thing about executive summaries, particularly if you are in an organization where they are not usually used, is that you’ll get comments on how easy your report was to read and how useful the summary was. Try it and see!
This should be your final piece of writing, phew.
Make sure that you edit it too.
It is very important that your summary contains only the same information as the report, don’t add anything to it that isn’t in the main report. Executive summaries should only be written after the report is completed. The original purpose of them was to be removed from the main report and circulated separately to the management team to help them give an overview of what was going on. If you think your summary is likely to be circulated separately make sure there are title, contact details and information of how to obtain the full report.
The 2 questions that will really help you to decide the content are:
- What’s the minimum people need to know?
- What would I tell them if I only had 2 minutes to talk about my report?
Guidelines for executive summaries:
- Reports over 5 pages should have an executive summary, depending on your audience you may wish to call it an abstract.
- A suitable length is a maximum of 5% of the length of the report (excluding appendices) and as a rough guide for most reports it is best to be able to get it on one or two pages.
- It must summarize the report and be able to be read and, if necessary, circulated separately.
- They are usually organized in the same order as the report itself.
- They are written after or alongside the main report.
- Only information given in the main report should be included.
- The emphasis can change slightly, for instance a 10 page section of your report may only be 1 sentence in your summary. A 2 page part may be 3 sentences.
- Look at the titles of your subsections and beginning and final sentences of paragraphs to start outlining your summary.
- Find key words and use them to organize the draft of your summary.
Examples of executive summaries:
The executive summary from the report writing skills training book. (see an image of this executive summary at the bottom of the page)
Examples from the web (not necessarily excellent examples just a flavor of different approaches).
Commission on online protection executive summary
Reducing Greenhouse gas emissions at what cost, executive summary (click on link towards the bottom of the page).
The future of UK higher education - executive summary
NASA launch vehicles - executive summary
National capacity in forestry research - executive summary
You can find lots more example executive summaries on the web, the easiest way if to do an image search for executive summary.
Details of the Report Writing Book
About the author, Margaret Greenhall
Preview inside the report writing book
Praise for report writing training
Resource page for the report writing book, including the free workbook