A while back, a client asked me to review a significant proposal that he and his team were working on. Normally, when a client sends something to me to review that something is going to have major implications for their business.
After reviewing the proposal, I suggested that he add an executive summary to the beginning of his document. An executive summary, I told him, will quickly and succinctly get to the point of any proposal, laying out the goal or problem you’re addressing and explaining why it’s important and what you’re going to do about it.
My client told me that the proposal was for his CEO, and he didn’t think an executive summary was necessary. Besides, he said, it takes too much time to condense the entire proposal to just one or two paragraphs.
I told him those might very well be reasons to not do it, but there are plenty of good reasons why he should do it.
First of all, we’ve found that important proposals often are circulated among several people or teams who review them and offer additional input. An executive summary is a way to get everyone well informed immediately and thinking about ideas/solutions quickly.
Yes, an executive summary requires time and brainpower, but it allows you to clearly communicate the very essence of what’s at stake. This concise level of communication is invaluable when it comes to sharing a recommendation and getting everyone on the same page. Also, writing an executive summary helps you to fully understand and think through your proposal while possibly alerting you to any potential problems or questions. I told my client this is exactly why he should do it.
All the same, I understood his hesitation. It’s challenging to take a five-, 10- or 25-page recommendation and condense all that information down to a few paragraphs. It’s hard. French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) famously said this: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”
Less, almost always, is more.
This reminds me of a story about an employee who emailed an executive a report for her review. The executive emailed back and said, “Be more concise.” The employee took her advice, shortened the report and sent it back again to the executive for her review.
The employee received another email with the comment, “Please be more concise.”
The employee reduced the content of the report even more and emailed it again to the executive who then replied: “Thanks. Now I will read it.”
Most executives today want (and indeed, need) to begin reading anything important with a one- or two-paragraph executive summary that prepares them for what’s inside the document and tells them exactly what they should expect to learn before they spend a lot of time and/or effort on the subject.
There’s a legend that Ernest Hemingway once bet some friends that he could write a story using only six words. He is said to have won that bet with this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
That’s beyond brief, but it speaks volumes.