The executive summary is often the most read and scrutinised section of tender, bid or proposal submissions.
However, in addition to pulling together a fully compliant and compelling bid (and under time pressure), it can be daunting to write an executive summary that helps clinch a ‘win’.
This blog sets out some general principles, tips, and tricks to help you write a winning executive summary.
Understanding the role of the ‘executive summary’
There’s a big hint in the name ‘executive summary’. Meaning you should assume that if any part of your tender, bid or proposal is reviewed by the ‘executive’ decision makers it’ll be the executive summary.
While the balance of your submission is likely to be reviewed by multiple audiences and pass through a few layers (i.e. procurement checking for completeness and compliance and end users reading the detailed technical responses) the ultimate power and decision making may be held at the ‘top’ of the buying organisation.
First impressions matter at the executive or c-suite level (especially if your organisation is not yet well known to the evaluators) and thus your executive summary should aim to balance encapsulating all the wonderful benefits your organisation would bring to the opportunity against brevity.
Bear in mind it’s not literally a summary of your entire proposal contents (that’s what the table of contents or compliance matrix is for) in this context executive summaries are best thought of a sales pitch or selling tool.
How long should my executive summary be?
It’s been said a good executive summary is a like a ‘Little Black Dress’.
That is, it should be long enough to cover everything, but short enough to remain interesting.
So, ideally you will achieve a balance between brevity + specificity.
Nowadays time and attention poor audiences not only prefer short material, but they also actually require it to be short to comprehend what it is that you’re on about.
In our experience an executive summary around 1 – 2 pages in length is best for smaller proposals, however for more complex and higher value bids, an executive summary of between 4 – 10 pages can sometimes be appropriate.
If in doubt keep it short.
Again, the hint is in the name!
When to prepare your executive summary – from the beginning or at the end?
There are two schools of thought on when it is best to prepare your executive summary either from the outset of the bid, or right at the end.
Usually in practise (despite planning) the executive summary tends to be created during the final week of the life of the bid.
Often it isn’t until that last week that offers and solutions formulated and designed have crystalised and thus more easily distilled into concise ‘mentions’.
A two-pronged approach can work well. Early on you might workshop, agree and prep a skeleton framework that is settled early, with place holders for specifics (terminology, facts, figures) that can be injected later under relevant sections to take your executive summary to ‘submission-ready’.
Should we also include a covering letter or open with a ‘thank you for the opportunity’ in our executive summary?
While it has become passé or basic in some sectors to open with ‘thank you for the opportunity to bid….’ good manners never go astray.
If your target client is a little more ‘old school’, or the bid opportunity has come through a close personal connection, a short thank you paragraph, or separate covering letter or email could be just the thing.
Noting for most big corporate and government bids it can waste valuable page space (especially if you are limited to a 1 page executive summary or the bid is being lodged in an e-procurement portal and there is no opportunity to include additional content for instance).
Think through what the recipient(s) of THIS bid will be expecting and go from there.
Executive summary writing – style tips
Make your text skimmable – interesting, lively, easy to read, and ‘light’.
Tips to lighten up your executive summary text include:
- Add sub headings to organise information for the reader
- Try interspersing some bullet lists to get positive points across rapidly to readers who will skim
- Bold the first (or first few) words of your bullets as though that’s all that will be read
- Eliminate superfluous words such as definite articles – JMA consultants often find that we can eliminate scores of unnecessary ‘thes’ and ‘thats’ to make text vastly more readable and lighter
- Reduce circumlocutions (roundabout expressions adding extra words without extra meaning) e.g. ‘the possibility exists for…’
- Avoid pomposities / overly formal language e.g. ‘herein’, ‘hereunder’.
Make it client-centric
Changing the subject of each paragraph or statement to the prospective client, rather than your firm, it will make it far livelier from their point of view.
Rather than a general, cool, and distant style, make it personal, and compelling.
For example: rather than talking about what you generally do for all of your clients, make specific commitments to what you will do for this (prospective) client once they entrust you with their project or business.
Use specific examples.
For example: rather than ‘it is important for engineering firms to work in partnership with their clients’
try the more specific and personal approach of
‘we recognise the importance of working in partnership with you on XX project and will ensure we achieve this by … <and insert your list of specific activities and deliverables>’
End strongly: ‘why buy us and why entrust us with your business/this project’
Truly summarise the reason (the ‘why’ or ‘so what’ rather than your proposal’s contents) for the prospective client to buy and the reasons they have to trust you. Make a clear promise or commitment to be worthy of that trust. Think of it as your ‘story in a sentence’.
While guidelines, models, formulas and rules of thumb are all very well, in practise an executive summary should ‘sound’ like you and your organisation.
And one advantage of following some of these executive summary ‘rules’ is deliberately ‘bending or breaking’ them for effect!
If you need help with crafting a winning executive summary; or knowing when to bend or break the rules for your next bid, tender or proposal, why not talk to us, our tender writing consultants can help.
Tender readability remains a problem for some in the 21st century. I still see submission documents that cling to a handful of really old hat tender presentation and formatting techniques. I suspect this is because some of these ‘rules’ are viewed as being more appropriate to a ‘formal’ style of document such as a tender. […]