Most businesses prepare a lot of documents, reports and analyses when deciding whether to move in a strategic direction or which steps to take with a project. Since it would be unreasonable to expect all interested parties to read every single document, most businesses will summarize their findings in an executive report. An executive report gives the reader a clear summary of original documents without having to read them.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
An executive report is a concise version of a lengthier document or documents. Write it in a way that summarizes those other documents, and convinces the audience to keep reading.
What is an Executive Report?
Most businesses have a ton of reports, analyses, project documents, case studies, financial models and other information sitting on the desks. As useful as this information is, you're never going to get a lender, investor or busy executive to read it all. Even if they did, they might overlook important issues due to the sheer volume of information.
That's where an executive report comes in. This short document gets straight to the nuts and bolts of the matter and summarizes all the main points in the larger document suite. The idea is to condense and synthesize the key points of all those other documents so readers can quickly see what you're doing and what the status of your project is.
When Should You Use an Executive Report?
You should think about preparing an executive report whenever you need someone to rapidly become acquainted with a large body of information. For example, you might prepare an executive report to:
- Summarize the company's business plan for lenders.
- Collate the results of multiple research studies for decision-makers.
- Start a conversation with investors.
- Communicate with management and customers.
The best way to think of an executive report is like a business card for your project. It should provide a brief and succinct summary of the information and leave a decisive impression on the reader. Once they've read the executive report, the reader can decide whether she would like to go deeper into the other project documents.
The Right Executive Report Format
The exact format will depend on the nature of the project and what it is you're trying to summarize. An executive summary of your business plan, for example, is going to look very different from an executive summary of your process or workflow for customers. If your organization has a house style or an executive report template, then you should follow this to ensure consistency in your business communications. Otherwise, consider the following elements when writing your report.
- The report should be as concise as you can make it while covering the key points.
- As a rule of thumb, make sure the report is no longer than 10 percent of the length of the document(s) you're summarizing.
- The report should strike the right tone for the audience you are reaching out to.
- It should begin with a summary of the project.
- It should systematically answer a question or questions, backed up by evidence and data points.
- It may involve making recommendations, but will definitely involve synthesizing and evaluating information.
- The report should have a clear conclusion.
- It should be readable independently of the main document(s).
- It should consist of short, concise paragraphs or bullet points.
- It should only include material that is present in the main project documents. This is not the place to introduce new material or go off on a frolic of your own.
The Preliminary Work: Who Are You Writing For?
The first question to ask is, who is your audience? A senior leader within the organization probably will need different information and recommendations than a potential investor, for example. Understanding who your audience is allows you to organize your thoughts and write persuasively.
The second question to ask is, what problem are you trying to solve for your audience? For example, are you providing a status overview of a project for senior management? In this case, you'll need to think about the problems and successes you've encountered, work in progress and upcoming milestones. Have you performed research on the possibility of moving your production abroad, in which case, you need to give decision-makers all the data they need to make the final decision?
Once you know what problem you're solving and who you are solving it for, you can start pulling out the relevant information. Keep the content tightly focused on the problem.
Writing the Report
The report should follow a logical structure: introduction, meat of the report, recommendations and conclusion.
The introduction sets out the purpose and scope of the report – why are you writing this document? What do you hope to achieve? The reason for writing almost any executive report is a problem or a need, and you need to name it. This provides a clear context for the rest of the report.
The body of the report should be well-organized, with each pointing leading logically to the next. Describe what you're doing to solve the problem. An executive report should be well-referenced and well-researched, so refer to core materials where the reader can find the source information. Include charts, graphs and other visuals to support the key arguments you're making within the main body of the text.
The recommendations section should clearly define your next steps. Make sure the information you are presenting leads logically toward this section. Are your recommendations for possible action clearly supported by the previous sections of the report? Do they mirror what the main project documents are recommending?
The conclusion should be clearly stated with no ambiguity about what the reader needs to do next. Do not introduce new material in this section. There's an old adage for speechmakers, that you should, "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; then tell 'em; then tell 'em what you told 'em." This is the "tell them what you told them" part of the report. There's no need to go over old ground, but you need to make sure the reader is on exactly the same page as you.
Style Tips for the Report
The format of an executive summary is unregulated, so you can choose whatever font, margin size and layout suits you best. However, form follows function as they say, and there are a few style choices that can enhance the reader's experience. These are set out in the do's and don'ts section below.
As you write, choose words that can easily be understood by your audience. Industry leaders may feel comfortable with technical terms, but investors are financial experts, not industry insiders. This audience will respond better to everyday language that requires no special knowledge of the industry you're working in.
- Download an executive report example, or look at reports your colleagues have prepared, for guidance on the style and layout.
- Use headings and subheadings so a busy reader can flip to the parts of interest.
- Rock the numbers, which often speak louder than words.
- Use illustrations, charts and graphs to highlight relevant points.
- Use blank lines between paragraphs and "white space" to improve the reading experience.
- Use a tone and language your audience will not understand.
- Make recommendations that are unrealistic or unsupported.
- Include information that doesn't exist in the main project documents.
- Waffle on.
- Copy and paste from the larger documents. You're synthesizing the information, not regurgitating it.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a business writer. Her articles have appeared on numerous business sites including Typefinder, Women in Business, Startwire and Indeed.com.