How to write an effective executive summary

The executive summary is a staple of every business plan. Typically, it makes the first impression on an audience and is critically important for capturing the reader’s attention. No matter how strong the rest of your business plan might be, a weak summary can dissuade a potential investor or stakeholder from reading further. So your executive summary should knock it out of the park.

What is an executive summary, and what should one include?

An executive summary is, like it sounds, a high-level summary at the beginning of your business plan. It summarizes your plan and should be able to stand alone, if needed. It should be brief, easy to understand, and compelling. 

Someone who knows nothing about your industry should be able to glean the following from reading your executive summary: what your business does, what makes you unique, and why you’re going to succeed.

Watch the length

To start, a strong executive summary should be no more than two pages. Although it can be challenging to summarize your entire business in so little space, it’s also a powerful exercise. You’ll often get only 30 seconds to capture someone’s attention anyway, so being able to succinctly pitch your business, while focusing on key points, is a valuable skill.

Write a compelling first paragraph

The first paragraph can be seen as the executive summary to the executive summary. It should be compelling and give the audience an immediate sense of what your company does. The sooner your reader arrives at that “aha” moment, where what you’re working on and why clicks, the better.

The intro should hook the reader. It can include aspects of what led to the company’s creation. The rest of the executive summary should mirror the chronology of your full business plan. Include brief sections on things you might want to explore in more depth later on in the plan. 

Don’t forget these important points

With such limited space, you have to be deliberate about what to include. It depends on the size of your business and who is reading your executive summary, but common pieces to include are 

  • The problem you’re facing, the product you’ve made, and your competitive advantage
  • Your target market and the overall market you’re competing in
  • Your product’s distribution (sales/marketing plan)
  • Your management team and why you’re equipped to succeed
  • Why now is the right time for your business and how you’ll stay competitive into the future
  • An overview of financial projections
  • Your fundraising goals

By including these important elements, or ones similar to them, you’ll be able to build a one- to two-page document that sells investors and others on your mission.

Think about structure and tone

There’s no singular best way to write your executive summary, but there are guiding principles to help you along the way.

First, it’s important to put the summary into context for yourself. The goal of an executive summary is almost certainly not to get someone to write you a big check. The goal is to pique enough interest to score a meeting where you can share more. 

The more meetings you take, the more experience you’ll gain talking with investors and other stakeholders. This increases your odds of finding venture capitalists who want to be a part of what you’re creating. As far as your executive summary is concerned, this means you should consider what will create interest and what details you can exclude.

Second, be authentic and confident. Finding investors, mentors, and partners for your business is a two-way street. You’re vetting the other side as much as they’re vetting you. So be real about who you are. 

A common mistake business owners make is creating a sales-y executive summary, full of clichés that don’t represent the real company and ideology. Let your voice shine through to give readers a sense of who you are and what you care about. 

Equally important, be confident. If you don’t believe that your business is going to succeed, then how will an investor? Don’t over exaggerate numbers or radiate cockiness, but demonstrate your expertise and conviction about what you’re building.

Third, consider the audience reading your summary. You can draft multiple versions based on the reader, using terms they’ll understand and a tone that fits the relationship you have with them.

Final parting thoughts

Ultimately, you get to decide what your executive summary looks like. It’s the first representation of your business that investors and others will see. So make it count, and make it real. Check out different executive summary examples for a tangible idea of the directions you can go, and, of course, don’t forget to proofread. Good luck!

A journalist and digital consultant, John Boitnott has worked for TV, newspapers, radio, and Internet companies for 25 years. He’s written for Inc.com, Fast Company, NBC, Entrepreneur, USA Today, and Business Insider, among others.

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