Don't write your executive summary backwards

I’m sitting here working on a proposal and I just realized that the way I was first taught how to write an Executive Summary is backwards.

When I first started writing proposals it was considered innovative to have a box or section titled “Why Us” at the end of your Executive Summary. It was intended to itemize and spell out the reasons why the customer should accept your proposal.

But as I’m writing today I realize that it shouldn’t go at the end. It should go at the beginning. The very first thing I’m writing in this proposal is what makes this proposal submission different (and better!) from all the others the customer will be reading. I’m going straight to what matters to the customer.

And I’m following it by positioning the company according to its strengths and weaknesses. The company has some special qualities and does some things that really need to be called out. It also has some problems that need to be put in context.

Along the way I’ve paid close attention to the evaluation criteria in the Request for Proposal (RFP). I’m saying things that relate to the most important evaluation criteria so that the customer can get a sense of how we’ll stack up when they score our proposal.

This positioning forms the basis for the company’s bid strategies. And how we articulate those strategies in the proposal becomes our themes when we pick up that language and carry it throughout the rest of the document.

And I’m doing all of this in the first two or three paragraphs. What I have, in essence, is the minimum someone needs to know about the company and its proposal in order to explain their decision. They won’t make the decision until they read the rest of the proposal which substantiates these points, but the context is there. Right from the beginning.

It’s a very useful tool for writing the rest of the document. It gives me the points I need to support and the context I need to use to frame the details. When I go to write each section, I can refer back to the Executive Summary and explain how the section-level details substantiate why the customer should accept our proposal.

It also makes it easier to write the proposal from the customer’s perspective. I made sure that the Executive Summary is about what the customer will get instead of being about the company submitting the proposal. Now when people refer back to it to write their sections, they can pick up the context and way of articulating from the customer’s perspective. Instead of addressing the requirements by saying what the company will do, they can see how to address the requirements by explaining how the customer will get what they want and need as a result of what the company will do.

When you address “Why Us” at the end of your Executive Summary, it means you’re putting a lot of words between the beginning and what really matters to the customer (and to you!). It also means that you are probably not writing from the customer's perspective. You may think that you’re making those points and just summarizing them at the end, but the customer doesn’t get to see the context of your proposal until the end. If you are the customer, you don’t want to read an entire section to find out what matters. If you’re the customer, that’s where you want to start.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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