APMP Best Practice 101s: How to Write a Good Executive Summary

If you’re involved in the bid and proposal world, you’ve definitely heard a lot of people talk about how important the executive summary is. It’s the MVP of your proposal – improving your chances of winning massively if well-executed. This is because:

  • It’s the most widely read part of your proposal – generally, the executive summary is the part of your proposal that the whole evaluation team will read. If you want everyone who matters in the decision-making process to see your best foot, you’d better put it forward in this section.
  • It’s a summary of the main reasons the customer should choose you – the executive summary is a concise and persuasive outline of exactly why your proposal is the best choice for your customer. Having all this information neatly laid out in one place makes it much easier for evaluators to process the value of your bid.
  • It sets the tone for the entire proposal – if your executive summary is professional and persuasive, reviewers are likely to expect the same from the rest of your proposal. A good executive summary can elevate their overall opinion of you, and a bad one can do the opposite.

But how exactly do you nail the executive summary?

In this article, I’m going to walk you through the basics of writing a good executive summary that will capture the attention of your audience. Stay tuned to the end for the ultimate weapon in your arsenal for producing a winning executive summary.

The process

The best executive summaries involve input from a few different people. Ideally, the opportunity/capture manager would write the first draft of the executive summary, with support from the rest of their team and the proposal manager. The finished draft would then be refined by the writers, designers and editors on your team.

Because of its importance, the drafting of the executive summary should not be left until the last minute. It’s important to start drafting this section as early as possible – preferably before the kick-off meeting.

APMP’s best practices for the timeline of executive summary development suggest that you should:

  • Begin gathering information for the executive summary during the opportunity/capture analysis stage.
  • Prepare a first draft between the RFP analysis and the kickoff meeting.
  • Make ongoing updates to the document throughout the proposal process.

What should be included in an executive summary?

APMP recommends using a five-box structure for your executive summary with the following five sections:

  • Section 1 – An overview of your understanding of the customer’s business drivers, goals and challenges.
  • Section 2 – An overview of your solution and its key benefits.
  • Section 3 – An overview of the costs, price and conditions, and the value for money the customer will receive.
  • Section 4 – Your suggested next steps for the process, e.g. presentations or meetings.
  • Section 5 – A short conclusion summarizing why the customer should choose you.

Don’t do these things!

For how often the executive summary is spoken about in bid/proposal management circles, there are still a few mistakes that are made very frequently in the drafting of the executive summary.

So, before we get into the details of what a good executive summary is, let’s talk about what it’s not:

  • A cover letter – The cover letter and executive summary are generally separate elements of a bid. There shouldn’t be any greetings, signatures or pleasantries in the executive summary. You should save phrases like “we are pleased to submit our proposal” or “thank you for the opportunity” for a cover letter.
  • A table of contents – The executive summary isn’t used to help your reader navigate your proposal. Remember that, for some members of the evaluation team, your executive summary might be the only part of your proposal they read. For others, they will have been assigned a specific part of your proposal. Don’t waste time in the executive summary directing the reader to parts of your proposal they probably won’t read.
  • Marketing copy – Your customer is not looking for you to brag about how great your company is. Remember that marketing copy is intended to generally address a market, whereas this executive summary is intended to address a specific customer directly.
  • A description of your company – Your company’s history is not relevant to an executive summary. The customer is looking for the reasons why they should choose you, and – sorry – but they really don’t care when your company was founded or the struggles it overcame in its early years.

Do these things!

The whole point of an executive summary is to convince the reader that your solution is the best for them. It needs to clearly communicate why you should win the contract.

To pull that off, there are a few golden rules you should be following:

  1. Follow any customer requirements

If your customer has given any instructions for how the executive summary should be written or presented, you must follow them. You don’t want to risk the customer getting the impression that you don’t listen to them or value their needs.

Remember, where a there is a toss-up between general best practices and customer specifications, you should always prioritize the latter!

  1. Show that you understand what the customer needs

This section needs to persuade the evaluation team that your solution is the best one. Persuading someone effectively means understanding what is important to them and clearly demonstrating the links between that and what you’re offering.

The executive summary is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your customer focus to as many people on the customer’s side as possible. A good executive summary makes the reader feel seen and understood. It gives the impression that you truly get what they’re trying to achieve, which gives them more reason to favor you over other options.

You should make sure that you keep what the customer needs to hear from you in the front of your mind as you write. Prioritize outlining how your features will specifically benefit your customer, rather than how great you think they are.

  1. Put the customer first

We’ve discussed writing in a customer-first way by centering their needs and requirements in the way that the executive summary is written. But you can convey your customer-centricity purely in the way that you structure your sentences.

Put the customer’s name before your own. Instead of opting for the ‘We can offer you X’ approach, go down the ‘You need X, and we have just the thing for that’ route. A general rule to follow in proposals is the 2:1 rule. This means that for every one time you say your own company’s name, you should say the customer’s twice.  

  1. Summarize your solution

Readers of your executive summary should come away knowing the cornerstones of your solution, but the key word here is ‘summarize’. The executive summary is not the place to go into all of the technical details of your solution – that comes in later sections of the proposal.

You should be emphasizing the most important aspects that you know your customers particularly care about. You should also use proof points to substantiate any claims of benefits that you make. This boosts your credibility in the customer’s eyes.

  1. Use graphics to support your statements

Incorporating images and graphics, e.g. charts and infographics, into your executive summary can enhance the reader’s emotional engagement and can help them process the most important points.

Crafting graphics that consolidate and clearly communicate your theme statements can significantly elevate your executive summary. The human brain is wired to prefer the things it finds more attractive. So, using graphics to boost the aesthetic appeal of your executive summary will always be a point in the ‘pro’ column for an evaluator.

Perfect your executive summary prowess

The executive summary is arguably the most important single section of your proposal. Getting it right is crucial, and this article just scratches the surface of the best practices that can help you do that.

Sure, you may have written a thousand executive summaries in your career. You might well know how to best present your benefits and discriminators, and how to appeal to the emotional decision-making of your evaluation team. You might think that you don’t need to refine your skills any further.

But when these few pages could make the difference between landing that game-changing contract and losing out to a competitor, can you really take that chance?

If you want to make sure that your executive summaries border on unbeatable, we have the answer!

APMP offers an Executive Summary Micro-certification that not only gives you all the tools you need to nail it every time, but also gives you the credential to demonstrate that expertise to the world!

There are no prerequisites to getting this qualification – you don’t need any experience or even to be a member of APMP. All that stands between you and the ‘ES-M’ postnominal that sets you apart from others in your field is 25 multiple choice questions!

Did you know that:

  • Employers are, on average, 72% more likely to hire a candidate with a relevant micro-certification?
  • Nearly 70% of US workers who hold some form of micro-credential believe that earning it has helped them to progress in their careers?
  • 73% of employers say that micro-certifications help to improve the quality of their workforces?

What are you waiting for? Learn more about the micro-certification, or book your exam, here.



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