The executive summary is the most troublesome and difficult part of the report to write, and there are a few reasons for this.
The first reason is that the writer can be unsure as to not only ‘what’ needs to be mentioned there, but also ‘how much information’, and this can end up being confusing.
The basic rule, is to aim for an executive summary to be around 10% of the overall size of the report, so a 200-page report will have an executive summary of no more than 10 pages. But don’t stretch it out; if it’s not needed.
We often have projects that comprise many chapters, say 20-30 chapters, and so when it comes to writing the executive summary in this situation, what is the best strategy? Generally, in reports such as pre-feasibility studies, environmental impact statements, or geotechnical studies, each chapter will represent a specific element of the research undertaken, i.e. Chapter 16 Geotechnical Studies.
The most important questions to answer are:
· What is the report about, i.e. location and background of the project?
· What were you asked to do, to find out, to resolve or provide a recommendation for?
· What were the outcomes of your research and investigative process?
Do you need headings in an Executive Summary?
Well, headings are always used as a form of breaking up the information and for the ease of reading, but be sure not to have too many headings or bullet-points as it can also distract from the message. To answer this question, you could have a heading such as ‘Overview’ or ‘Background’, then ‘Findings’ or ‘Method’ and then ‘Recommendations’.
If you choose to address each chapter of the report and its findings separately, this is acceptable; although be careful not to simply copy-and-paste from the chapter in the report. If you are going to précis the information from the report, make it just that – a high-level approach of the whole chapter rewritten specifically for the Executive Summary.
Be careful not to make the Executive Summary like a report within the report, but it does need to be viewed as a standalone chapter, that is, if management were to simply be provided with the Executive Summary, would it make sense? Would they be able to glean the background of the project, who was appointed, what they were asked to do, the findings and ultimate recommendations?
The justification of findings follows in the subsequent chapters along with the supporting evidence; there’s no need to put all this in the Executive Summary.