Many of you write proposals for your company. Whether you write a new one each year, every few years, or once a week, most likely you've been required to pen an executive summary to provide an overview of your company's solution. I've had a lot of students and clients ask my advice on creating graphics for these introductory sections and below are my key rules to help you put your best graphic forward.
Think of your executive summaries as the “elevator pitches” of the proposal world. Your future client wants to know why they should care about you and your solution—fast.
Put yourself in your future client’s shoes. Imagine you want to build a beautiful, cutting-edge home theater (lucky you) as soon as possible. You ask for multiple potential home theater specialists to give you bids and plans. In the end, you get twelve 90-page proposals. You don’t know much about the submitters. Fortunately, a few companies supplied a “proposal-at-a-glance” (an executive summary) with their proposals. You pick up their two-page “proposal-at-a-glance” for a quick scan. What would you want to see? What information would help you choose a company? Do you think it might influence whom you choose?
Independent research says when we are given too much information we tend to focus on the wrong data, which leads to poor decisions. The key is to give decision makers and evaluators what they need as quickly as possible. Make it blindingly clear and easy to understand.
When reviewing a company’s “proposal-at-a-glance” for your new home theater, would you prefer a text heavy document extolling the virtues of their company? Or would you prefer to see images of luxurious home theaters created and installed for other clients? How about testimonials? What about price or quality comparisons?
The secret to a winning executive summary is to empathize with your future client. What do they care most about? Show them your solution in the beginning and, as quickly as possible, give them an overview of it. Graphics communicate up to 60,000 times faster than text alone, quickly show your professionalism and commitment to the project, and greatly influence the decision maker.
I highly recommend making your executive summaries image rich. Give the decision makers and evaluators what they want in graphic form. Back up your visuals with concise text. If they want more detail, they will review your proposal to find it.
Before you develop your executive summary be sure to know the answers to four critical questions (which I refer to as knowing the “P.A.Q.S.”):
1) What is the purpose or primary objective (P) of my executive summary?
Phrase your answer carefully. Don’t simply write, “to win the proposal.” Although this is accurate, it doesn’t help you empathize with your future client. Instead, I recommend something specific: “To show that AdHelp (our new software) saves our client 80% in costs over their current system and raises sales revenue by 20%.” You want the answer to this first question to be a statement you can make to your audience.
2) Who is your audience (A)?
Know who they are, what they want to read/hear/see, and what they care about. Learn what your audience truly desires. They are the sole reason you are creating your executive summary. Tailor it to your target audience (e.g., use their lingo, reference their past products, talk about how you will work within their world). Make sure your audience can see the solution to their challenges and understand the resulting benefits.
3) What are the questions (Q) to which your audience needs answered to achieve your primary objective?
Refer back to the first question. Imagine you walked up to your future client at a networking event. After introductions and pleasantries you say, “AdHelp saves you 80% in costs and raises sales revenue by 20%.” How would they respond? Perhaps they may ask, “How?” In which case, your answer should be the same as the theme of your executive summary. It should answer their burning questions:
• How fast?
• Is it reliable?
• Is it easy to use?
• How much does it cost?
• What makes it better?
Focus on answering their top three questions. I recommend addressing no more than five in your executive summary, or you run the risk of giving them too much information up front, which could lead to poor decisions.
4) What are the answers to the questions? I call this knowing the subject matter (S).
To correctly answer your audience’s questions, you need a clear understanding of the presented topic. If you do not understand, how can your audience understand? You need to answer their questions quickly and clearly.
Executive summaries come in all shapes and sizes. Some look like brochures and others look like amped up proposals. Your approach is dependent upon your audience’s preferences, award value, and the anticipated influence of your executive summary. If you think your audience will be “turned off” by a brochure, avoid using it. If the award value is high, rest assured they will expect extensive effort and thought being put into the proposal and executive summary. If you believe your future client prefers to see a summation of the solution immediately, then your executive summary will have greater influence.
The bottom line is your executive summary needs to shine. The best way to do this is to follow my process and use quality, concise content and superior graphics that communicate the right information—what your future customer cares most about.