Executive summaries seem simple-until you get them wrong. Make sure you're following this simple outline
A short and clear, compelling summary of an expert opinion report or of any other study (often studies with practical or political implications).
An indication of the main points considered and the conclusions reached.
A written, scientific statement in support of a specific position, answer, solution or recommendation in a concise, clear and coherent form.
Executive summaries are prepared for a well-educated audience with various educational backgrounds. Typical readers have a tight schedule and want to extract key messages from the text as fast as possible. Therefore subject-specific language and complex explanations should be avoided.
Executive summaries should be as short as possible, without being as short as an abstract in a research article. One or two pages (of text) is fine, three okay and four pages the maximum. In rare cases, for very extensive studies, executive summaries might be longer.
Short executive summaries usually do not have different sections but only a few paragraphs. However, as sections and subtitles help to structure the text and help to communicate the message, longer executive summaries should be subdivided into sections.
Context and Question
Answer and implications
Materials and methods
situation (circumstances, conditions)
Problem (shortcomings, open question)
Solution (one or several solutions or answers)
evaluation (critical appraisal of solutions; is the question and answered or the problem solved?)
If recommendations for actions are given in an executive summary, these
are presented at the end. Sometimes bold type is used for these recommendations (Seely 2002)
In some cases, dependent on topic or the approach of the author and /or client, definite recommendations are not given but different options with their advantages and disadvantages provided
Say exactly what you intend, in a way that is as clear as possible to the reader
Use definite, specific, concrete language.
Use the active voice.
Put statements in positive form.
Express coordinate ideas in similar form (parallel construction of sentences).
Keep connected words in a sentence closely together (e.g. subject and verb).
Omit needless words, phrases, or whole sentences. Needless words are those that can be removed without significant loss understanding.
Make sure that information elements hold together so that the progress from one point to the next is logical and seems inevitable.
1from strunk & White (2000) and Seely (2002)
Cover one idea, aspect or topic per paragraph.
The first sentence in a paragraph introduces the topic of that paragraph (topic Sentence)
The last sentence summaries points discussed and prepares the reader for the next paragraph
The present tense is easiest to understand. If possible, use the present tense throughout the executive summary (possible exception: description of applied methods)
Make sure to have enough time for the feedback and revision process. As executive summaries areready by many people and as they may influence important decisions, it is very important that executive summaries re well worded.
The following three executive summaries differ substantially in format, length and use of images and figures. We suggest you spend a moment looking at each one and then choose one of them to see how they have used the text to convey their science and recommendations.
Seely, J. (200): Writing reports. One step ahead series. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 120 pp.
Strunk, W., White, E. B. (2000): The elements of style. Fourth edition. Longman Publishers, New York, 105 pp.