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Do not make these 20 mistakes when writing your Executive Summary

A bad Executive Summary can be worse than not having an Executive Summary.

Sometimes it helps more to know what not to do than it helps to hear more about “best practices” and all the things you should be doing. You can use this like a checklist to see where you might have gone wrong and improve your Executive Summary writing:

See also:
Executive Summary
  1. Start your Executive Summary by introducing yourself. From the customer’s perspective, you are not as important as what they are going to get if they accept your proposal.
  2. Summarizing your qualifications. Whether or not you are qualified is usually just a pass/fail consideration. However, why your qualifications matter and what the customer will get out of them is worth explaining because it shows insight and value.
  3. Making unsubstantiated claims. An Executive Summary really isn’t a summary. And it definitely shouldn’t be a summary of your amazing claims, summarized by leaving any substantiation behind. In spite of your claims to the contrary, you are not special. Unsubstantiated claims do not “position” you as anything except lacking credibility, which in turn positions you as untrustworthy.
  4. Making the Executive Summary your story instead of theirs. The customer does not care about your story. They care a little more about how it impacts them. But what they really care about is their story, and how it changes with you in it. Don’t tell your story. Tell theirs.
  5. Ignoring the evaluation criteria. If your proposal is going to go through a formal or point-scored evaluation, then your Executive Summary will be viewed in the context of whether it shows why you deserve the highest score. Everything you write must be considered in the context of the evaluation criteria in order to maximize your score. No matter how great one of your attributes is, if it can’t be scored, it literally doesn’t count.
  6. Summarizing your proposal. An Executive Summary really isn’t a summary. The customer doesn’t want to read a little bit from every part of your proposal. They want to know why you are their best alternative.
  7. Not having any graphics. Less reading is still reading. The best Executive Summary is a single graphic that makes it clear how everything related to what you propose comes together to deliver the outcome the customer desires and why your approach is their best alternative. They are hard to create, but worth the effort. The customer would rather see it than read about it. 
  8. No value added/purposeless/not mattering. If your Executive Summary does not say what matters to the customer, then your proposal does not matter. Your Executive Summary needs to make it clear what the point of it all is. If it doesn’t, your proposal is pointless. When they want details, they’ll read your proposal. Your Executive Summary should explain what all those details mean and what they add up to. 
  9. What you want to say instead of what they need to hear. Don’t include everything you want to say in the Executive Summary. Only include what the customer needs to hear in order to decide that you are their best alternative. When you get there, stop writing. If you are not sure what they want to hear, that is the problem you need to solve, and you need to do it before you start writing. Make sure every single thing you say passes the "So what?" test.
  10. Long enough to become work to read. If your Executive Summary covers so much ground and contains so much detail that the customer has to work to read it, you’ve defeated the purpose.
  11. Failing to make firm statements. If your Executive Summary is full of promises, intent, and commitment, without unambiguous statements about what the customer is going to get by selecting you, then it will actually offer less value than a competitor's proposal who drops all those promises and simply says what they will do or deliver. 
  12. Failing to prove that you’re the customer's best alternative. Are you the customer’s best choice? Did you prove it? The customer has alternatives… Consider your Executive Summary to be an explanation of why your proposal is the customer's best alternative, with the rest of your proposal being the details required to prove it.
  13. Failing to support their decision. The customer has a decision to make. Does your Executive Summary help them to make it? Have you answered their questions? Have you shown them how to move forward? Have you addressed the challenges?
  14. Failing to earn their trust/not being credible. Trust must be earned. Credibility results from proving your claims. Have you claimed trustworthiness or proven it? Whatever you do, don’t edit out your credibility or simply claim to be a “trusted provider.” An Executive Summary should be short, but it must be trustworthy. Customers buy from people they know and trust. But your unsubstantiated claims could be working against your bid strategies based on trust.
  15. Failing to show what's in it for them. It’s not about you. It’s about them. And more specifically, it’s about what they are going to get. If your Executive Summary is about your understanding, doing what they asked for in the RFP, or your qualifications, there may not be enough in it for them to accept your proposal.
  16. Failing to integrate with the rest of the document. Does your Executive Summary exist in a vacuum separate from the rest of your proposal? Or does it bring meaning to your proposal and point the way to where they can get answers?
  17. Focusing on what instead of why. An Executive Summary really isn’t a summary. It is not a summary of your offering, your RFP compliance, your features, your qualifications, or anything else. It’s the reason why all those things matter. It’s the reason why your offering is their best alternative. 
  18. Telling instead of showing. Don’t describe. Don’t tell. Instead, trying showing. Showing with a graphic is best. But you can write to show what matters and why.
  19. Presenting details instead of what they add up to. Your proposal contains the details. Your Executive Summary should explain what they add up to for the customer instead of providing a redundant but small set of details for them to read before reading the larger and more complete set of details.
  20. Not differentiating. You can't be best if you are not different. An Executive Summary that sounds like all the others does more harm than good. You can always differentiate. If your Executive Summary doesn't explain why your differentiators make you the customer's best alternative and set a new standard for what the highest evaluation score should be, you need to start over.
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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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