Tips for Persuasive Executive Summaries

Many federal proposals require an Executive Summary, a standalone overview of the highlights of your proposal. Even if a formal Executive Summary is not required, nearly all proposals will include an Introduction that serves as a de facto Executive Summary. Although typically not formally evaluated, your Executive Summary can nonetheless make or break your bid. Below we provide four tips for making sure your Executive Summary is an effective component of your proposal.

1. Don’t get too technical. The decision-makers who will read your Executive Summary are, in all likelihood, not technical experts. That’s not a bad thing—it just means they have a different set of concerns than the SMEs do, and you need to keep that in mind as you write. The evaluators reading your Executive Summary typically aren’t concerned with the intricate details of, say, how you will debug their new network—they just care whether the computers will work. Keep your technical overview at a high level.

To be clear, there is absolutely a place for exacting technical details—but it’s in the Technical Approach, not the Executive Summary. To that end, while someone from the technical writing team should certainly check the Executive Summary for correctness, the actual writing is better handled by your Capture Manager, who should have a thorough understanding of the customer’s key concerns.

2. A picture’s worth a thousand words. It’s a cliché for a reason: graphics just are more appealing than a wall of text. Keep in mind that your evaluator has dozens of proposals on their desk, and will welcome a break from all that reading. More importantly, study after study has shown that humans remember images better than text. This is known as the Picture Superiority Effect, and you need to use it to your advantage.

If you have the resources, it’s worth hiring professionals for your graphic design. If that’s outside the proposal budget, there’s still no excuse for leaving out graphics: the truth is that strong business graphics are often made using nothing more than PowerPoint.

Now for the caveat. While well-chosen graphics are a fantastic persuasive tool, poorly chosen graphics can be worse than none at all. Stock photos, for instance, are wasted space—they don’t tell the evaluator anything about you. A six-page-long flowchart crisscrossed with dashed and dotted lines may be totally accurate, but the evaluator will walk away with the impression that your approach is too complicated, your risk of failure too high. Keep your graphics sharp, uncluttered, and tailor-made to the proposal at hand.

3. Prove it. Anyone can claim to be “best in class” or to have “the highest quality” or to provide “unparalleled service,” and evaluators learn to tune these phrases out like so much background noise. If you want to get their attention, you need to provide hard facts. Saying you have “the highest quality” means nothing. Showing that your product has been in continuous use for 15 years without a single service interruption—that means something. It’s better to say nothing than to use an empty phrase.

4. Concision, concision, concision. Executive Summaries are almost always strictly page-limited, meaning there’s no room for extra language. In editing your Executive Summary, you should be able to articulate what each paragraph does to persuade the reader. Does it, for example, demonstrate why your company is a low-risk option? Does it prove your understanding of the customer’s worries? Or show why yours is the best approach? Ghost a key competitor? If you can’t positively identify the value of a paragraph, cut it out and use that space for something else.

Writers tend to get attached to their language and, as such, have difficulty reading it objectively. For that reason, it’s important to have someone other than the writer critique the Executive Summary. It’s an extra step, but the results are worth it.