The executive summary is arguably the most crucial part of your proposal. It’s the only part that’s likely to be read by everybody involved in making a decision.
Done right, it can captivate busy executives and convince them to pull your proposal aside for their team to read in full. Done wrong, it can kill any interest in reading your proposal.
Read on to learn how to write a compelling, client-focused executive summary that gets attention – and business.
What is an Executive Summary?
By collecting all the important elements of your response into one section, the executive summary allows the client to better understand why they should select you. It serves as an introduction, allowing the prospective client to quickly become familiar with your proposal and get an understanding of the reasons why your company would be a good choice over the competition.
Don’t Just Summarize What’s in the Proposal
For many companies, the executive summary is a stumbling block. Either they neglect its importance and throw it together at the last minute, or they work hard on it but focus on the wrong information. Both of these strategies are sure to set your proposal down the wrong path right out of the gate.
Let’s get one common misunderstanding out of the way: The executive summary’s purpose is not to simply summarize the proposal.
Keep it Client-Focused
A strong executive summary is crafted with the audience firmly in mind. Busy executives are interested in bottom-line deliverables, not details. Least of all details about your company or its history.
Imagine the task in front of the prospective client’s evaluators. They need to review and absorb vast quantities of material from a variety of bidders and decide which ones best meet their needs.
What you really want to achieve with the executive summary is to lay out the business case. Therefore, the executive summary requires a different approach than the rest of the proposal. You need to balance the efficient delivery of key information with a persuasive, well-substantiated pitch.
Above all, the executive summary must demonstrate a clear understanding of the potential client's needs. A good way to do this is to address the ROI your services will deliver.
The N-O-S-E Structure
In his book Persuasive Business Proposals, Tom Sant outlines his basic N-O-S-E structure to ensure every executive summary is persuasive and client-focused.
- Needs: Demonstrate that you understand the client’s business and the key issues or problems
- Outcomes: Focus on the results they want to achieve by addressing the needs or solving the problems.
- Solution: Recommend a solution that will solve the problems and deliver the results
- Evidence: Provide proof that you can deliver that solution on time and on budget
When people are making decisions, that is the order in which they want to see your content. Unfortunately, the vast majority of executive summaries start out focusing on the vendor – the company’s history or capabilities. According to the book, those are “death moves”.
A client-focused executive summary focuses on three key points:
- The client’s hot button issues
- The client’s vision
- Your solution to solve their issues and support their vision
Now that we understand what to write, let’s take a look at how to write it. Remember, your proposal is about the client, not you. The client should always come first, and any mention of yourself (your company) should always come second. As a rule of thumb, a strong executive summary mentions the client's name three times as often as your company's name.
Address the Hot Button Issues
You were most likely given the opportunity to submit a proposal because the client has vital issues that need to be addressed and solved by your solution.
Address each issue in the order it is presented to you. Don’t address the issue you solve best, first. Remember, the proposal is about the client first and foremost – not about how great you think you are at solving the one issue you handle exceptionally well.
Adhere to the Client’s Vision
The client’s issues and the client’s vision are two separate topics and need to be addressed as such. Often, the vision has nothing to do with the issues that the company is currently trying to solve. It can be their long-term goals and growth strategies, their push into a new market or product line, or simply where they see themselves in five years.
Make sure your solution is in line with their vision and that they understand how you can help them get there.
Demonstrate the Value of Your Solution
Here is where you can start talking about yourself (but don’t go overboard with it). Be sure to substantiate how you can help the client solve their issues and move towards their vision.
- Focus on the benefits of your solution, not the features. Features tell the evaluators what your solution does but not how it helps, which is a crucial distinction.
- Give the key reasons why your company is the right company to deliver the solution.
- Differentiate yourself, for instance, by highlighting a unique methodology or providing a quick case study of your past work. Including testimonials from satisfied clients speaks volumes.
Your executive summary sets the tone for your entire proposal, so give it the dedication and care it deserves. The most effective executive summary stays laser-focused on the client. Talk about yourself only in the context of the client’s specific business needs.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in October 2020 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.