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Stay healthy with a winning executive summary.

Readers are invited to contribute practical advice and observations based either on experience on on research, to this column. All submissions must contain a checklist of practical tips. Send submissions to Dr. Carol Barnum, Humanities and Technical Communication, Southern Tech, S. Marietta Parkway, Marietta, GA 30060.

Writing an executive summary proposal for winning new business is similar to exercising for good health. People will generary agree that both are needed for longevity but will disagree on how they should be done.

The success and ultimately the health and longevity of your company can depend on the success of its proposals. To increase your odds of winning, this article recommends how to produce a winning executive summary. I will offer a number of views--some of them contradictory--to help your odds. (Exercise to accompany your reading is strictly an optional choice.)

I'll admit that the impact of an executive summary can be over-dramatized, for I believe that a good executive summary can't cure a bad proposal. However, if for no other reason than the sheer number and influence of potential summary readers, a proposal team should not underestimate the impact of the executive summary or ever submit a proposal without one.

Holtz (1986) sees the summary as more than a summary of the proposal; it "must focus primarily on the benefits and proofs--the reasons for favoring the proposer with the contract. This is its purpose in life, and it should appear in each proposal, whether the client has requested such a summary or not" (p. 205).

Referring to the potential power of the executive summary, Green (1993) says

Nothing is more precisely tailored to reaching your customer's highest-level decision makers. No other document (when properly written) can better convey the succinct and persuasive messages that say to the customer, "Why us." The reason is simple: All those decision makers read the executive summary, they read it first, and sometimes it is all that they read (p. 1).

Even if there is no executive summary requirement in the request for proposal (RFP) or solicitation instructions, do one anyway and take the time to do it correctly. If it's agreed that the executive summary is worth your best effort, then the answers to the following questions will help you develop that winning summary:

1. What is the purpose of the executive summary?

2. How long should it be?

3. What information should be in it?

4. When should it be started?

5. Who should develop it?

6. How should it be reviewed?

The answers to these questions are generally applicable to a larger summary--one that might be part of a proposal with at least 50 pages. But some techniques apply to any executive summary, whether it be a 25-page summary in a separate volume or a 1-page summary for a small letter proposal.

What is the Purpose of the Summary?

The executive summary is a persuasive marketing document that reflects the major points of the overall proposal. It summarizes what the proposal team wants the customer to conclude after reading the proposal. Central to this persuasion is a description of features and benefits of the proposed product or service with enough detail to substantiate your proposal claims.

For the proposal team, the summary should be a document that nudges the team to merge proposal strategies and details into a clear and cohesive story. (More details about this recommendation are provided later.) The executive summary should also clearly "sell" the strengths of the proposal with some creative freedom that might not be appropriate in other proposal sections.

Although Helgeson (1985) says "a good executive summary should be a kind of condensed version of the proposal with a sales pitch included," he cautions against too much selling. "Most people I've seen who try to write executive summaries get carried away with the sales pitch part and don't ever get around to telling the customer anything else. It doesn't take much empathizing here to realize that too much sales pitch becomes counterproductive--turns the customer off" (p. 61).

The summary is your opportunity to influence the customer selection team by summarizing the whole proposal to support the favorable evaluation of the proposal parts. To accomplish this, the executive summary should be targeted to its reader audience. Holtz (1986) has a typical opinion of who reads the executive summary:

It is titled so as to suggest that this is intended for those top-level executives who would not normally read the entire proposal--really have no need to spend time poring over details which are usually of interest to only the technical/professional staff specialists and technical managers. (Of course, despite this, everyone reads the Executive Summary) (p. 205).

Unfortunately, it may be difficult to know when and how the summary will be read and who will read it. If you're not sure who the audience will be, don't write the executive summary only for the executive-level evaluator. Hedge your bets by writing to serve different interest and skill levels of the selection team from the executive to the technical guru. Construct stepping-off points for the various levels of readers, and remember that, as a summary, it must have limit to its detail.

How Long Should the Summary Be?

Length is an issue that generates many opinions. Bowman and Branchaw (1992) say the length should be about 10 percent of the proposal's total page count--but it shouldn't exceed 5 pages (p. 148). Patten (1989) offers a limit of 15-25 pages (p. 2-28). Helgeson (1985) recommends a summary of typically not more than 6 pages with 10 pages an absolute limit: "For most proposals, if you use more than ten pages, the chances are you really don't know what you are trying to say or how to say it, or worse, your summary will have lost its focus" (p. 60).

Holtz (1986) takes a more flexible and--in my opinion--a more effective stance:

Two to three pages of executive summary for every hundred pages of main proposal is a good rule of thumb for sizable proposals, if you can hold to that. However, do not misinterpret this as a recommended yardstick by which to measure all executive summaries, for it is not that. A basic rule for length is this: Make the executive summary long enough to present all those points you believe to be decisive, but no longer than that (p. 233).

Use common sense; if you think the summary is too long, it probably is. (Of course, don't exceed any page limitation dictated by the RFP or solicitation instructions. Avoid developing the executive summary as a stand-alone proposal that responds to all RFP requirements. First, you probably won't have the space to do it. Second, the summary should complement and summarize your overall proposal--not replace it.

What Should Be in a Summary?

Look first to the RFP or solicitation instructions to help you outline your executive summary. If this guidance is sketchy or absent, plan the format and content to make the executive summary a persuasive marketing document that sells the major features and benefits of the proposal. Without formal RFP guidance, if you think the summary outline should be driven by the RFP, consider a format and content that reflect the evaluation criteria or major sections of the statement of work (SOW). (By the way, a summary of the needed product or service in the SOW can be a good clue to the customer's key concerns. Don't ignore these concerns in your summary.

Present themes and the features and benefits. No matter how you organize it, the summary should highlight and substantiate your proposal themes, statements that explain why your proposal should win. Shipley (1987) teaches that theme statements have strategic value:

They convey the features and benefits that you expect will most impress the evaluators. They answer that all-important question, "Why us?" If you can't tell the evaluators why you should be selected, then you are asking them to figure it out for themselves. And why should they (p. 5-24)?

Although the summary is expected to have a marketing flair, it must contain substantiation to be credible. It is a document of contrast--a summary mixed with enough detail to be believable. Don't fill the executive summary with unsubstantiated themes--they will read as unconvincing claims. "Refrain . . . from parroting the theme when the text does not directly support it in some specific way," advises The Pocket Proposal Style Manual (Ross Pipes 1989, pp. 13-14).

Don't confuse marketing flair with pretentiousness and overbearing bragging. Green (1993) cautions against "inconsistency and fluff" in the executive summary:

Hemingway once bragged that he had an excellent pooh-pooh detector--except he did not use the word pooh-pooh. You may know such hallow [sic], effusive, affected, and/or pretentious prose by another name such as humma-humma, arm-waving, or gratuitous bull. Whatever you call it, keep it out of the Exec (p. 10).

Don't dwell on describing the features of the proposed product or services--focus on how the features will benefit the customer. "One of the long-standing truths about selling is that people do not buy features; they buy benefits," says Shipley (1987). "Remember that people do not buy circular saws; they buy the ability to cut wood" (p. 5-17).

Svoboda and Godfrey (1989) note that

The primary benefits of your solution form the kernel that gives your proposal a personality or identity that is distinctly recognizable and sticks in the memory of those who are reading the words. Otherwise, all you're describing is another box or package. You might as well be selling corn flakes" (p. 138).

Answer the important questions. An executive summary should answer questions based on the five "Ws" (and one "H") that are drilled into the heads of journalism students:

1. What product/service will be provided? 2. Who will provide it? 3. When will it be done? 4. Where will it be done? 5. Why is it needed? 6. How will it be done?

Answers to these questions will provide the kind of information that we look for while scanning our morning newspaper. And it's the information that the customers will want as they scan your proposal. Helgeson (1985) suggests that the summary answer these questions (p. 66):

* What critical areas could impact contract performance?

* How will these critical areas be handled?

* What are the "unique, innovative, significant features" of the proposal?

* What makes you the most qualified for the contract?

* How is the proposal structured?

I also recommend that the summary author

* Proactively identify and justify deviations or exceptions to RFP/solicitation requirements.

* Ensure that the information in the summary is contained or amplified elsewhere in the proposal, unless otherwise directed by the Rfp/solicitation. If it is important enough to be in the summary, it probably should be addressed elsewhere in the proposal.

Provide words and pictures. The summary should be more than words; it should be a visually appealing and readable document with a mix of text, graphics, and layout features--none of which should be neglected. I suggest that at least half of the summary spaces should be committed to graphics. This will help you attract and hold the fleeting interest of a browsing reader. In contrast to text, graphics can allow you to explain complex ideas easily and help the reader more easily retain the key points.

For enhancing visual appeal, consider the use of headlines, oversized action captions, rules, shading, boxes, and bulleted phrases to complement text and illustrations. The summary can also be supported by judicious use of color graphics. But use color with a purpose, not just for its own sake.

Green (1993) says, "Picture the solution ... and use graphics for advantage" in the executive summary:

More than the obligatory graphics such as organization charts and schedules, look for or construct illustrations that help to substantiate the discriminators in your approach. If high reliability is a sales point, for example, substantiate that feature with a table of reliability prediction results (p. 4). Good advice, but don't forget these "obligatory" organization charts and schedules or other graphics that will help you answer the previously described "W" and "H" questions. I strongly recommend that the summary author develop an outline and a preliminary list of expected graphics before writing one sentence of text. Before you begin the writing, develop these graphics, and then write the text to complement them. The early planning of graphics forces the summary author to think through the details in a visual setting before beginning text development. This will help to produce graphics as an integral part of the executive summary-not as an afterthought in a text-driven document.

When Should the Summary Be Started?

When to start is another question that leads to disagreements--some that border on being emotional. Generally speaking, the answer is either early or late in the proposal-preparation process.

"Don't get snookered by the `Write the Executive Summary First' theory," says Patten (1989), who admits that the theory is "very tempting." it was so attractive that when we first encountered it many years ago, we attempted to practice it. We got nothing but grief. Like any other form of elaborate front-end promissory note, it merely delays the bad news, while projecting superficial, and misleading fantasies about the proposed approach. Premature summaries (at any level), premature themes and premature writing are all largely a waste of time, or worse, downright counterproductive (p. 2-28).

Patten reommends that the summary be started about two to three weeks before the proposal is due. Pfeiffer (1989) also supports this later approach: "Write the summary last. Only then can you get the necessary perspective on the subject" (p. 68).

The vote is in-start it early. However, Beveridge and Velton (1978) take the opposite view: "Executive Summaries come first, not last. You don't review a proposal after it is written. You review it before it is written. After it is written there is no leverage" (p. 3-1).

Hill (1993) cites the extensive preparation that an executive summary requires, and recommends that the summary not be a last-minute and rushed effort. "Since a large part of the executive summary is based upon the customer requirements and proposal strategies that are developed early in the proposal effort, begin planning as soon as they are drafted" (p. 171).

I concur with the early proponents as long as it's agreed that a persuasive summary can't be completed until the baseline technical and management details have been developed for other parts of the proposal. The other proposal sections should be the primary source for summary details, and if they lack the adequate details, the summary's credibility will suffer.

Writing the summary late in the proposal process can lead the summary author to stumble "through aU the garbage you write, then finally asking in total exasperation," What the hell have we been trying to say here, anyway?... according to Beveridge and Velton (1978). "You ought to know your summary before you write the detail, and put that summary up front" (p. 3-1).

As true as this might be, there is irony in proposal writing: You need a summary of the overall approach before you can write the proposal details, but to write a convincing summary, you also need details to back up your themes.

Coordinate with the other proposal sections. The detailed development of the executive summary will frequently run behind the development of other proposal sections. The chauenge for the summary author is to get in the race early, staying close enough to keep other authors on course and to read over their shoulders. This working relationship should begin early in the process so the summary can mature with and influence the rest of the proposal.

This parallel effort promises to be more effective than waiting to start the summary until the proposal is nearly finished. It is difficult for an executive summary author to join the team late in the proposal process and then to read and condense a large proposal with little time to progress through the learning curve that proposal authors experience. The planning, drafting, review, and refinement of the summary deserve more than a few days near the end of the proposal process. It takes time to understand the marketing issues and the technical and management details and translate them into a persuasive marketing document.

If starting the summary early causes you "grief," as reported by Patten (1989), 1 contend that insufficient proposal strategy and planning are the cause of this grief, not the "premature" writing of the summary. Use the summary as a catalyst and a barometer for the proposal team. As a catalyst, the summary can push the required strategy planning and coordination that provide the framework for amplifying the detailed technical and management approaches of your proposal. As a barometer, the summary can tell how well the planning, coordination, and approach development are progressing.

Produce the summary in the same steps you would take for any other proposal section. On the basis of RFP/ solicitation requirements and your proposal strategies and themes, develop an outline for the summary text and graphics and refine it through iterative drafts. Hill (1993) says, "It is important, however, to put the first draft together early to get a feel for the whole and to identify possible trouble spots. With each new revision, balance and adjust the text to maintain consistency and continuity" (p. 172).

You should place early emphasis in the executive summary on its outline and visual packaging, realizing that the details to be summarized will take time to develop and condense. Because of this need, a very detailed mockup or storyboard of the executive summary may be appropriate for the first draft review.

The summary author should participate in all early proposal outline and storyboard reviews, attend all volume/section leader coordination meetings, and maintain a two-way and timely flow of information between the executive summary and other proposal sections through the proposal volume and section managers/leaders or individual authors. The summary writer should also work with individual authors to help them support proposal themes and prepare summary illustrations that can benefit their sections. Assisting other authors with their illustrations can often help the summary author generate ideas for executive summary graphics.

It's important to develop the executive summary as an integrated part of the entire proposal process--not a standalone document written in a vacuum or as a re-write of the rest of the proposal. (And for a similar reason, the summary should be developed in coordination with the proposal transmittal letter. In addition to the obligatory administrative information, the transmittal letter should highlight the most important themes of the executive summary, providing another chance to tell the customer why you should win the contract.

Begin with a strategy summary document. To act as a catalyst, the summary should first appear as a summary of the proposal strategy--as determined by the core proposal management group--and then be distributed to the proposal team as it starts preparing the proposal. This strategy summary document, to evolve into an executive summary, should present key proposal issues, concerns, themes, strategies, and ghosting (subtle recognition of a competitor weakness) plans supported by program schedules, organizational charts, and summaries of the technical and management approaches, also known as baseline plans.

"Proposal themes also help you manage the writing of the proposal," says Hansen (1992). He goes on to say, "Many of the writers will receive their introduction to the program when they are handed their writing assignments. In such instances, proposal themes help you explain what each writer needs to address in their assigned sections" (p. 210).

The proposal process can then begin with focused authors understanding the technical and management baselines and the marketing strategy of the proposalcourtesy of the strategy summary, the seed for the executive summary. The strategy summary should be updated as there are changes or additions to the themes, strategies, schedules, and technical/management details. This will provide a summary to other proposal authors, who can lose sight of the "big picture" as they concentrate on their specific sections.

Who Should Write the Summary?

"The best talent should be applied to preparing the executive summary," says Hill (1993). "It should be written by a technical, management, or marketing person who has an overall view of the proposal" (p. 167).

Unfortunately, that's good generic advice that might not prove helpful in picking the best author. I think your candidate should be someone who has the time to plan and write the summary, especially if the proposal is a complex, multi-volume project and the summary is to be used as a tool to help coordinate the overall proposal. The author should be a self-starter who has a creative background in writing and graphic development, somebody who can separate the wheat from a lot of proposal chaff. Prior proposal experience would be preferred.

Note that I didn't focus on the need to be a good writer; being a talented writer is only one piece of the qualification puzzle. A proposal team is further cautioned not to treat the assignment as an inherited job based on management position or the silver content of someone's persuasive tongue. Helgeson (1985) says "most executive summaries ... are written by amateurs," and cynically adds, "one of the top management people or the president thinks, 'Gee, I haven't really contributed anything to this proposal yet, so I gotta do something so that I can say I wrote the proposal just in case we should win it... (p. 65).

Candidates can include those from program management; proposal management; marketing, technical or staff positions; and if their workload permits--authors or volume leaders already assigned to the proposal. In the absence of a qualified and available writer, for a smaller proposal I would recommend the program or proposal manager, because this person would likely have the required management skills and be in the position to review and understand the entire proposal. In larger proposal efforts, the summary deserves its own dedicated author with support from upper management and the proposal team.

Although many might contribute to the summary, I recommend that only one primary author be assigned to write the executive summary. "It should not be a team effort, but should be written by one person so that it has a consistent flow and style," observes Hill (1993), who also says that the author "should not have other proposal responsibilities" (p. 167).

In contrast, Shipley (1987) suggests that a core team develop the executive summary and volume summaries after the proposal kickoff meeting and before the proposal drafting begins (pp. 4-11-4-12).

How Should the Summary Be Reviewed?

The review process is complicated by the frequently subjective nature of deciding what the executive summary should contain and how it should be written.

Accept review critiques for what they are--comments to be considered on their merit. Don't automatically restructure the executive summary on the basis of hipshooting opinions from "experts" made credible by their high salary or consultant fee, especially from those whose exposure to the proposal is measured in hours. The summary may not "tell the story" because the overall proposal has not focused on the "story." The problem may not be in the structure or approach of the executive summary, but rather in the baseline and marketing strategy of the overall proposal approach. Don't try to fix a weak proposal by just overhauling the executive summary.

Don't ask for upper management help only in the review process. Make them a part of the summary planning and development. Green (1993) advises

Start at the top. Solicit the views (and endorsement) of your company's own top management. Start by interviewing the highest-level executives with specific knowledge and interest in your bid .... This person will think at the same level as the audience you are trying to influence. As often as not, they will know the audience as a business or social acquaintance or friend. Your executives will know things you can only imagine. Their position will also open doors to the other resources you need (pp. 1, 4).

Subjectiveness can continue to aggravate the process if successive summary reviews are performed by different people or by the same reviewers who develop new "insight." Their advice--well-intentioned though it may be--can lead to an unnecessary string of restructured executive summaries inspired with knee-jerk criticisms and recommendations that conflict with earlier review comments.

The summary attracts so much review attention because of its perceived importance and because it is likely the first and most widely read section in the draft proposal. Caution reviewers to realistically budget time for reviewing the draft summary because overemphasis on the summary can detract from the more important task of reviewing the core proposal. Don't let the review become an exercise in editing; reviewers should make general editing suggestions but leave the serious editing to the editor.

Reviewers should not expect the summary to respond to all RFP requirements; the size and purpose of the summary will not permit it. They should expect the executive summary to

* Meet the needs of the intended audience, a group that can include a cross-section of different selection evaluators

* Discuss the applicable RFP requirements and support proposal team themes and strategies

* Agree with other proposal sections

* Read well and be visually appealing

But reviewers should do more than pass judgment on the summary's quality; they should objectively explain why and how the summary can be improved. Because the summary's visual presence is a vital element in its effectiveness, reviewers should also be asked to review annotated mockups that show the planned layout and detailed outline of the executive summary.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Table 1 summarizes my recommendations on how to plan, develop, and review a proposal executive summary. They can be tailored to meet the varying needs caused by the complexity of the proposal, the size and experience of the proposal team, and the availability of time and resources. Paced by your executive summaries, may your business organization and all of your proposal teams be healthy winners.

Table 1. Recommendations for developing a winning executive summary

1. Prepare the executive summary as a persuasive marketing document for all levels of readers. Focus on the key discriminators and the features and benefits of your proposal with enough detail for credibility.

2. Even if there is no RFP/solicitation requirement to do so, always prepare some form of an executive summary for your proposal because of its potential value to you and the customer.

3. Select executive summary authors for more than their ability to write. The job also requires availability, commitment, graphic and proposal management skills, the ability to understand technical and management details and strategies, and the knack for seeing the big picture among many details.

4. Start the process early, realizing that an effective executive summary must creatively draw from details that take time to develop and digest. It needs enough time to go through the outline, storyboard, draft, and refinement phases that any other proposal section goes through.

5. Evolve the executive summary from a strategy summary, developing the summary as a catalyst and monitoring tool for planning and developing the entire proposal, including the proposal transmittal letter.

6. Use common sense in allocating pages to the executive summary. Adhere to any Rfp/solicitation page limits. Within reason, if there are no stated limitations, use what you think is necessary. If you think it's too long, it probably is.

7. Whether content is dictated by the RFP or your own design, the executive summary should tout the benefits of your proposal in an effective mix of text, graphics, and layout with at least 50 percent of the summary space allocated to graphics. It should be convincing, read well, and be visually appealing.

8. Ensure that the executive summary is supported by the proposal it summarizes. if it's in the summary, it probably should be elsewhere in the overall proposal.

9. Encourage objective criticism and advice in executive summary reviews, but don't try to cure a sick proposal by just treating the summary. Beware of guidance from hip-shooting "experts" who can lead the executive summary through a series of unnecessary rewrites. Don't just assign upper management to the review; also get them involved in the planning and early development of the summary.

10. Don't expect the executive summary to respond to all RFP requirements; space and purpose won't allow it. The summary should complement the overall proposal; it shouldn't be a substitute.


Beveridge, James M., and Edward J. Velton. 1978. All you should know about creating superior proposals but somehow never fully understood. Talent, OR: JMBeveridge and Associates, Inc.

Bowman, Joel P., and Bernadine P. Branchaw. 1992. How to write proposals that produce. Phoenix, AZ: The Oryx Press.

Green, R. Dennis. 1993. "Ten no-nonsense rules for preparing an effective executive summary." Association of Proposal Management Professionals Perspective III, no. 4: 1, 4, 10.

Hansen, Robert M. 1992. Winning strategies for capturing defense contracts. Arlington, VA: Gloria Magnus Publishing.

Helgeson, Donald. 1985. Handbook for writing technical proposals that win contracts. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Hill, James W. 1993. "How to write a good executive summary for a proposal." In How to create and present successful government proposals. James W. Hill and Timothy Whalen, eds. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press, pp. 166-173.

Holtz, Herman. 1986. The consultant's guide to proposal writing. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Patten, Hudsen T. III. 1989. The GO book: A complete field guide to modern proposal warfare. Thousand Oaks, CA: Communication Management Associates.

Pfeiffer, William S. 1989. Proposal writing: The art of friendly persuasion. Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Co.

Ross Pipes and Associates, Inc. 1989. The pocket proposal style manual. Chapel Hill, NC: Tekne Press, Inc.

Shipley Associates. 1987. Writing winning proposals. Bountiful, UT.

Svoboda, Krasna, and Richard L. Godfrey. 1989. The perfect proposal: A vendor's guide to award-winning telecommunications and data processing proposals. Chelsea, MI: Network Resources, Inc.

Chuck Keller, an STC Atlanta member, is a proposal and technical communication consultant and a frequent contributor to Technical Communication. A former newspaper reporter and aerospace proposal manager, he has an M.B.A., an M.S. in technical communication, and a B.S. in journalism. He is also an active member of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP).
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Date:Aug 1, 1994
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