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Why your Executive Summary should not be a summary

Are you being tricked by the name?

Don't let the name fool you. An Executive Summary has a specific purpose in a proposal. But it has nothing to do with the name.

If you don’t have time to read the whole proposal, what do you want to know? Is it:

See also:
Executive Summary
  • A little about each section of the proposal?
  • A recitation of your own mission and goals from someone who claims to "understand" them?
  • Information about the company submitting the proposal?
  • Why this proposal is your best alternative for getting the most of what you want?

An Executive Summary has little or no "summary" in it. An Executive Summary is a decision making tool. A proposal answers "who, what, where, how, and when." An Executive Summary is not a summary of your answers to these. An Executive Summary answers "why."

  • Why should they bother to read your proposal?
  • Why is your proposal the best alternative?
  • Why will they get more of what they want by selecting your proposal?
  • Why should they reach a decision in your favor?

An Executive Summary is not used like a mini-proposal or abstract of what’s going to be in the proposal prior to reading it. If the evaluator needs to read a separate document in order to understand your proposal before they read it, you’ve done something wrong. You've added more reading to the reading they don't want to do. Write your proposal clearly so that no extra written explanation is needed. Delete the excess verbiage, or better yet make the words matter. Just don't make the mistake of thinking that adding more words and calling them a "summary" will make it easier for the customer to get through your proposal.

An Executive Summary is not a summary at all. It is a rationale. It should contain what the reader needs to know to reach a decision, whether that reflects a “summary” of what’s in the proposal or not. If you want to make things easier for the customer, don't give them a summary. Give them something that makes it easier for them to decide that what you are proposing is their best alternative. Your proposal provides all the details to substantiate your recommendations. If you write a great Executive Summary, they may not feel compelled to read all the details because they agree with your rationale. 

If the proposal will be formally point-scored during evaluation this remains true, although they may be required to go through the entire proposal to score it. But they will be doing that with an explanation of why your proposal is worthy of the highest score. And by "why" I mean the rationale, so the decision maker and other stakeholders will understand why the proposal got the score it did. The emphasis should always be on the needs of the evaluator as the decision maker, and not on how you think the evaluators should score your proposal. 

Should your Executive Summary show “understanding?”

This depends on the subject matter and complexity of the proposal. How does your understanding impact whether customer gets what they want? Is your understanding necessary to get the highest score?

The best way to show understanding is usually through results. If you are offering what the customer wants in a way that is better than any other alternative, you clearly understand their needs. You may not even need to use the word "understanding" to prove that you have it. No matter how much you claim to understand them, if you don’t provide the results they want you clearly do not understand their needs. If the evaluators have to read paragraphs of text copied from their website with claims of "we understand" added, but without any value added or insight, that can backfire and end up showing you really don’t understand them at all. 

Should your Executive Summary introduce your company and describe your qualifications?

How much do you matter to the customer? If you are selling a commodity, then you might not matter as much as you think you do. If you do matter, then explain why. Only give them the details that matter.

If your qualifications make you the customer’s best alternative, your Executive Summary should explain why. Which will impact their decision more, the fact that you have certain qualifications, or how they translate into better results for the customer? The answer to this depends on how that particular customer reaches their decisions. The same applies to the qualifications of any teaming partners you might have. Why they are on your team may matter more than a description of their qualifications.

What you should do instead of summarizing

Instead of writing a big fat proposal and then abstracting it into what is actually a little bit more to read, try making your Executive Summary an explanation of why your proposal is the customer’s best alternative. Your goal should be to enable them to make a decision in your favor with confidence. That makes it more like an assessment than a summary.

Instead of summarizing, try adding things up. What do your responses to all of the customer’s requirements add up to? What do they mean? Why do they matter? This is what the customer is most concerned about. The decision maker wants to know what it all adds up to. If what you offer sounds like it could be their best alternative, they’ll read the rest of your proposal to find out if the details add up to what you claim. But they’ll read it in context and with interest.

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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.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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