Week 17: How to write a good executive summary

There are aspects of any job that can be frustrating—waitresses don’t get tipped, nurses get yelled at, teachers have large class sizes—and so on. For evaluators, having a report sit on the shelf unread is gut-wrenching. While it is painful to think that all of the carefully crafted sentences and tables are not going to be read, the most frustration is in knowing that the evaluation findings are not going to impact programs.

Program directors and leaders are often short on time and one way to give a report a fighting chance at having an impact is through an executive summary. It’s a one-page document that summarizes the report—it is not a random collection of findings or an introductory piece. Instead, an executive summary should serve as a mini-report, organized to highlight the same areas as the report.

 Below are a few of the fundamentals a good executive summary should contain:

  • An organized structure that parallels the main report, including:
    • Summary of the subject matter. What is the topic being addressed? What was the evaluation question?
    • Brief explanation of methodology. Emphasis on brief. 1-2 sentences in most cases is enough.
    • Summary of the key findings and the supporting evidence. What are the key pieces of information that should be highlighted? What information tells the story best?
    • Summary of the recommendations and next steps with supporting evidence. Based on the findings, what are the next plausible steps and why?
  • Clear language that is appropriate for the audience.
  • Positive language and emphasis. Executive summaries are often used for boards and wider spread distribution. Frame the suggestions and findings with constructive language.
  • The information should be written in a new and abbreviated way—not simply cut and pasted from the original report.
KELLEY’S USEFUL TIP: Sometimes even an executive summary contains too many words for particular stakeholders. A dashboard or graphic representation of the key findings may make a more appealing summary document. By using basic shapes, colors, and text boxes, data can be presented in interesting and useful ways.

KELLEY’S USEFUL TIP: Sometimes even an executive summary contains too many words for particular stakeholders. A dashboard or graphic representation of the key findings may make a more appealing summary document. By using basic shapes, colors, and text boxes, data can be presented in interesting and useful ways.