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How to write an executive summary people will read

8 minute read - 9 December 2021
Executive summary

Executive summaries remind me of phrases like “actionable insights.” These buzzwords are vague enough to know they are essential, but it is impossible to determine what they mean. For years, I heard about how critical it is to include executive summaries in research presentations. They give the reader the ability to understand the report quickly and get the most important information at a glance. 

Since I come from academia, I likened the executive summary to an abstract. An abstract summarizes the larger research paper by highlighting the significant points and reasons behind the research. I struggled with this concise roundup of my work in my previous academic papers. And I fought just as much with writing executive summaries. I agonized, trying to find examples online (which are few and far between), and eventually forced myself to write something I knew wasn’t an accurate executive summary. 

After much trial and error, I decided to end my misery. I dreaded writing reports, made worse by the anxiety-inducing executive summary slide, which I would stare at for hours. How should I pick the most crucial information from all my findings? And how do I distill the entire study into a few headers and bullet points? Eventually, the lightbulb clicked. I began to ask stakeholders to give me feedback on these summaries, asking them what they thought, what was missing, or what was too much information. I A/B tested different formats, gathering more feedback and honing, until I landed on something that seemed to work across organizations. 

It just goes to show you, when in doubt, do some research!

The ingredients of a successful executive summary

An executive summary shows readers the findings or insights they need to know if they just read one slide. Now, this isn’t the best principle. We want people to read our full reports because we can’t possibly encapsulate all of the data into an executive summary. However, no matter how hard we try, some people won’t read entire reports, so we still have to find ways to get the most important information across.

This summary enables teams to see the most impactful details from a particular study. If someone were to read the slide, they should be able to take something away to help them make decisions. As user researchers, we must learn how to be concise. The executive summary gives us the chance to surface the most critical information teams need to know from a given project. 

Set-up

I’ve seen executive summaries that span several pages. I have even seen one that was ten slides long. As I mentioned, the purpose of an executive summary is to highlight the essential information as efficiently as possible. Typically, this means one page, at the absolute most, two pages. But I would say, always strive for one page.

Within this one page, my structure for an executive summary highlights the top three to five findings or insights in my study. In general, I will cover:

  1. One surprising finding/insight 

  2. One to two things that went badly

  3. If space, an additional finding/insight

While this structure is helpful, it is the frustratingly vague type of structure I referenced when trying to write these summaries. How do you know which is the most positive insight? Or what went poorly? Or what information to include and what to talk about later. Let’s dive deeper.

Questions to ask yourself

At first, I went about writing executive summaries without much direction. I wasn’t sure how to find the correct information to put into this synopsis of my study. Over time, I developed a list of questions I would ask myself to pull out the most valuable information from the rest. Here are the questions I ask myself when creating an executive summary:

Surprising finding:

  • Which of our assumptions or hypotheses were validated?

  • What were we risking, and how did that risk play out well?

  • What information could have a considerable positive impact on users?

  • What is something that changed the way we think about users?

  • What is something new we discovered that we didn’t know before?

Negative findings:

  • What issues did we uncover?

  • Which of our hypotheses or assumptions were invalidated?

  • What information has a considerable negative impact on users?

  • What information makes us question the direction we are going?

Other findings:

  • What happened that was completely unexpected?

  • What information could help a team make a better decision moving forward?

I don’t magically pick the best three insights on my first go. Instead, I ask myself these questions and write down any findings or insights that answer these questions. This process results in a list of about ten pieces of data. Once I have that list, I start narrowing down which information could impact the team’s decisions and best reflect the research study goals

Structure

My executive summaries all look pretty much the same. Through keeping this consistency, it makes it easier for me to write the summary. I use the following structure and template for each insight:

  1. A header that is a few words long

  2. A concise one to two sentences of what you learned

  3. An example that demonstrates what you learned, such as a quote

  4. The consequence of what you learned

  5. If relevant or possible, a small recommendation

Putting it together

As I mentioned, this is easier said than done. It takes some practice writing executive summaries before you become more confident and comfortable. When I was learning this skill, I felt I lacked a concrete example. So, let’s dive into one to demonstrate the ingredients and structure of an executive summary. 

Project

In this example project, we were trying to understand how different groups of people plan travel. We looked at student travelers (e.g., students traveling home) and business travelers (e.g., business trips) and how they make decisions to travel. 

Executive summary

Insight one: Cheaper prices are not the only deciding factor

Although lower prices are enticing for students and business travelers, they are not the only factors at play. Instead, these travelers weigh and balance a triangle of information: price, comfort (duration, number of changeovers), and trust in the booking platform.

“Yes, cheap tickets are great, but I am not going to take an eleven-hour trip with three changeovers to get to a place I know is two or three hours away if I pay a bit more. Plus, these third-party websites selling tickets always ask for more money.”

By surfacing the cheapest tickets first and assuming this is the trigger for purchase, we are not giving users the best results for their search, considering their decision-making process. We may be losing trust and revenue through this experience. 

Recommendation: Include trips that may be more expensive, but get the user to their destination more quickly (still within a suitable price range). Also, ensure all charges are transparent for the user.


Insight two: Flexibility in dates leads to multiple searches

These travelers can be relatively flexible with their traveling dates, which gives them the space to search within a date range to find the best trip. However, this concludes in many different searches and comparing prices/trips across multiple tabs, frustrating the user. 

“I wanted to see if it was cheaper to take the train on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, and it just got so complicated to do and compare all of these searches—it was frustrating.” 

By forcing our users to compare different date possibilities across tabs, we put them in a difficult situation. They may go to another product or competitor that makes this experience easier for them. Ultimately, this could end in us losing revenue and retention. 

Recommendation: Allow users to search with flexible calendar dates within one search to compare their different options on one screen easily.


Insight three: Lack of trust when booking through a third-party

Although it is easy for travelers to see all options when looking up travel on a third-party website, there is an inherent lack of trust. Extra fees, lost luggage, and lack of customer support have burned many travelers when they’ve booked through a third-party website.

“As much as I want to trust these websites, I can’t. Once I bought a ticket through a website, they canceled my seat last minute, didn’t offer me a refund, and the flight provider couldn’t do anything about it. It just makes me not trust all the smoke and mirrors. Plus, I end up paying so much in fees that I should go directly to the provider.”

With the lack of trust in third-party websites, there are times we are a search engine rather than a booking platform. They use our website to compare travel options and then go directly to the provider to purchase tickets. With this process, we end up losing money and customers. 

One last note

Take the time to practice these executive summaries. It took me a while to get to the stage where I could pinpoint the vital information and distill it into one concise slide. Start by asking yourself those questions about your study, do a brain dump, and then work your way down to the top three to five insights. It is well worth it when your research becomes more digestible and read by people who don’t have enough time to take on the full report!

Looking for some advice on how to create awesome reports in Dovetail? Check out our Guides for a great rundown on reporting using stories. Or come join us and 3000 other research-obsessed people on Slack to continue the conversation.

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