Executive summaries

Storytelling

July 27, 2022

Executive summaries are great vehicles for winning trust with an audience and showing leadership to a room full of stakeholders. 

But not all executive summaries are the same. 

Some are surface level and explain what is involved in a project before work starts. Others are more complex and are used to convince stakeholders that your path forward is the right one. 

Great communicators will adapt executive summaries to the stage of a project or the problem being solved. This guide will explain the different types of executive summaries and how to use them to communicate successfully to stakeholders.  

Let's dive in!

Table of contents

Coming Soon.

How to write powerful executive summaries (with templates)

An executive summary sets the stage for a presentation. 

In a presentation, it should be the first slide that summarizes the storyline, ideas, and supporting evidence you will present. But the amount of information presented depends on the stage of a project or how far along the audience is on their buying journey. 

In the early stages of a project, the executive summary aligns stakeholders on a core question. Once a project begins, the executive summary will outline progress and keep stakeholders updated. End-game executive summaries wrap up a project and inform the audience of the next steps and any changes to an original plan or idea. 

Let's examine each executive summary style and what should be included 👇

Early-stage executive summary

An early-stage executive summary aligns the team on the core question and question space. 

The summary can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Context. The aim is to make your team (or audience) feel heard and ensure nothing is missing going forward. 
  2. Core question. The second part of the summary confirms the core question to be solved and, if necessary, starts a discussion about whether or not the question being answered is the right one. This will help refine the question and improve it. 
  3. Next steps. The final part outlines the next steps and can also be used to preview hypotheses and get early reactions from the team. 

So, what does an early-stage executive summary look like in a real-world presentation? 

Let's revisit Elon Musk's plans to build an underground network of tunnels to reduce traffic congestion in Los Angeles. During a discussion about the plans, Musk was asked how he would cut the cost of boring tunnels when they were traditionally very high. An early-stage executive summary would allow Musk to outline his vision for the project: 

📝 Context. A description of the situation and what Musk's company will do throughout the project. Any new information would be summarized here. 

❓ Core question. Cement the core question that will be answered to align all stakeholders. Any disagreements would be raised here. 

🪜 Next steps. Outline early hypotheses and get reactions and early feedback from the team. 

Put all those answers together, and the early-stage executive summary will look something like this:

Mid-stage executive summary

Mid-stage executive summaries highlight progress to audiences and stakeholders. Like early-stage summaries, they have three core parts: 

👨‍💻Activities. The number of activities conducted since the last presentation where stakeholders were shown the early-stage executive summary. Each activity will outline progress made since the first meeting.  

💡Insights. The insights gathered since the last meeting, including any changes or new information. This section generates discussion and opinions amongst stakeholders.

🪜Next steps. The next steps outline focus areas and what will be achieved before the next meeting. 

Again, let's use Elon Musk's Boring Company project as an example of a mid-stage executive summary. If we hypothesize on each section from the above list, we are left with a mid-stage executive summary that looks like this:

End-stage executive summary

The end-stage executive summary aligns teams and stakeholders around a conclusion. 

As this summary is often the final one given on a project, the components are more complex. There are three different approaches leaders can use to build an end-stage executive summary: 

  • Situation-Complication-Resolution. Used when the summary builds up to the answer. This summary is ideal if you expect opposition from stakeholders or if they're being presented with a potentially controversial conclusion.
  • Resolution-Situation-Complication. A variant of the previous summary, this approach is used to resolve complex situations. Use it if your team is hungry for answers and has a common understanding of issues. 
  • Complication-Situation-Resolution. This approach creates a sense of urgency within a team. It's most effective when a platform for resolution is yet to be decided upon, and it helps pave the way for a project's next steps. 

Consider how Elon Musk's project might look if each of these strategies were implemented:

  • Situation, complication, resolution. The cost of underground boring and tunnel builds are presented first as the situation. This information is then used as a foundation to discuss the complex nature of the project and how the company can reduce costs and improve efficiency.  
  • Resolution, situation, complication. The no-nonsense approach gets to the point and outlines the project's goal (reducing costs by 10x) at the start of the summary. The complications, such as boring costs and technology, are presented to stakeholders at the end. 
  • Complication, situation, resolution. A sense of urgency is created by highlighting the inefficiencies and costs of current boring methods. This strategy then uses cost-cutting and innovative solutions to grab the audience's attention and get them on board with the presentation's conclusion. 

Each end-stage executive summary has its own pros and cons. The strategy you use will ultimately depend on the complexity of your presentation and how aligned your stakeholders are on reaching a shared conclusion. 


⚡ Prezent Pro-Tip:
Every company presentation is different, but the best ones consider your company culture and how well an executive summary is communicated to key stakeholders. Know the trigger points for your audience (and diffuse them) and prepare for any questions that may be thrown at you. If detailed questions are asked but you can't answer them during the meeting, make a note to discuss them with stakeholders later.

When to use essence and summary in presentations

There should always be an executive summary at the beginning of every presentation, but that summary's essence and message are what engage the audience.

A summary tells the audience what is already known, while the essence of the message tells them only what they need to know. Distilling a summary into all (or most) of its essential points creates clarity for your audience, so they focus on what really matters.

Busy executives prefer essence over expanded summaries for two reasons:

  1. Distilling a complex topic down to essential information intelligence and that you understand the information that matters most
  2. It shows courage. Simplifying a summary requires you to take one path and avoid selecting others, possibly omitting information to get to the essence of the problem/solution. 

Intelligence + courage is always a potent combination for leadership.

Prezent Pro-Tip: Always try to distill work into seven words or less. It will make it more memorable for executives and easier to understand.  

How a fishmonger can help us find the essence of a message 🎣

A powerful lesson about distilling important messages can be taken from a story told by Garr Reynolds in his book, Presentation Zen.

It revolves around a young fisherman selling his catch using a sign that says, "we sell fresh fish here". The fishmonger's friends and family were quick to point out ways he could simplify his message: 

❌ His friend highlighted the word "we" as redundant. "Of course it is you who is selling fish. Who else could it be?" he remarked. The word is quickly removed from the sign. 

❌ His mom then points out that the word "here" is superfluous. "Son, where else would the fish be sold but here?" she points out. So, the fishmonger deleted here as well. 

❌ Finally, his sister argues the word "sold" is unnecessary. "Since you are in a market, it is clear that you are here to sell fish!" she says. He removed the word.  

After the feedback, the fishmonger's sign is distilled into the essence of his message: Fresh Fish. But, he wasn't done. He sharpened his message further and replaced the sign with the symbol of a fish and the word fresh inside it.

The fishmonger started with a message that read, "we sell fresh fish here", and finished with this: 


The story is a great lesson on how distilling a message into its purest form can engage an audience without distracting them. 

Expert Corner: How Srihari Narasimhan keeps audiences engaged

Presenting to an audience is one challenge—keeping them engaged is another. 

The key is adapting your presentation to the audience's mood. As Srihari Narasimhan, Senior Director of Global Commercial at Gilead Sciences, explained in our podcast episode How to Read the Room, dialing into the audience and tailoring your approach to their needs is the secret to keeping them engaged.  

In Narasimhan's view, energy and eye contact are powerful non-verbal indicators of audience engagement. 

"For me, when I'm in one of these presentations, I make sure I dial up the energy and map the tone and the chemistry with the message," he says.  

To improve presentations and keep audiences engaged, Narasimhan recommends two key tools:

  • Feedback: Use introspection of how a conversation went or ask a trusted friend/colleague in the audience for their feedback. Narasimhan recommends asking them what part of the presentation worked well and which parts need improvement. This feedback will help you notice patterns and determine which sections need correcting. 
  • Practice: Narasimhan says practicing your presentation on different audiences helps you improvise for every situation. Not only will you learn how to communicate with different stakeholders, but practice will also help you get a sense of what questions or roadblocks could be thrown your way. 

Read the room and pick up on the audience's energy to host successful presentations. 

Executives summaries are powerful messages for any presentation

Executive summaries are so much more than just an opening slide for your presentation. 

The right executive summary will convince your audience that a certain idea is the best solution or educate them on specific steps needed to complete a project. Not only do executive summaries distill the most important parts of a presentation into one slide, but they're a powerful tool for earning the trust of your stakeholders. 

Consider your audience and adapt the executive summary for each presentation to drive your message home. 

Want to learn more about mastering presentations? Check out Prezent's detailed article on executive perspectives here.