How Long Should Executive Summaries be?

A 900+-word post to explain why an Executive Summary must do more than just scratch the surface? That can be a possible measure – topped up by another 50%!

The last few months have seen me actively engaged in partner-enablement sessions in the region. My aim was to arm them with best practices in pursuit management and win strategies.

The interactions with them offered me a learning experience as well.

I found that throughout SE Asia, Executive Summaries are often confined to just one page. One of them, in fact, kept it within three paragraphs.

It appeared to me that they treated Executive Summaries like nothing more than a cover letter.

brainstorming-idea

Stereotypal, “No Time” Excuse

The stereotypal reasoning they advanced was that senior executives had no time to read anything beyond a few paras.

I hear this excuse all too often, so I was not amused. If I got the message right, customers in SEA are ready to spend big on infrastructure upgrading but they have no time or inclination to read, say, a five-page executive summary.

A “No, No” to Drab, Lengthy Exec. Summaries

I am not one advocating long management summaries. At the same time, I will not recommend a barebones approach where you only seek to sell on price.

If value selling is least on your mind you are missing the big picture.

Not every company in SEA likes a barely-there strategy, as most sales personnel in the region assume. Recently, while working on a contact center bid from a multinational industry leader I figured the RFP had stipulated

  • a 10-page Executive Summary (without pricing) and
  • a 60-page solution description.

brainstorming

That is not an isolated instance. I have seen similar messaging in many other tender documents from professionally run organisations.

Very few RFPs state the number of pages they expect to see in an Executive Summary. So you are often left with no clue about what the prospect looks to see in an Executive Summary and of what length.

Let us consider a prospect who is looking for a fairly compelling Executive Summary, with insights into how your solution can help them meet their project drivers. The decision-makers will want to see the benefits they can realise with your solution.

You CANNOT sell with Tall Claims

They do not expect any tall claims but an articulation of market-proven solution strengths. So only a solution substantiated with credible proof points will resonate well with them.

ExecSumm1But you are under the illusion that they do not have any time to read beyond one or two pages. So you give them a basic executive summary, imagining that it is convincing enough to make the prospect award the contract to you.

Where do you think you will stand with a one-pager when decision-makers are looking for a well-reasoned Executive Summary?

You do not run the risk of your offer being rejected just because it had a five-page Executive Summary, with diagrammatic and tabular descriptions capturing the essence of your proposal.

But a one-pager with just the basics is likely to get you poor scoring with a leader who wants details with proof points.

Shipley Methodologies

I have spent the last 20 years in bid management, working for technology giants such as Cisco Systems, BT and, currently, Genesys.

I have been through a formal, thorough Shipley training, too! I apply the win themes I picked up from the learning at work. Essentially, the Executive Summary must:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the prospect’s requirements – their compelling events and project objectives
  • Feature a solution that addresses their pain points
  • Relate their hot buttons to our solution
  • Succinctly capture the benefits of our solution to the prospect
  • Provide proof points for each of our claims that are mapped to their goals
  • Convince them about our ability to meet their milestones
  • Offer a Return-on-Investment (RoI) commitment to the prospect

Don’t Keep it Superficial

The Executive Summary, possibly the only section that decision-makers read, must also be visually appealing, flow smooth and make evaluation easy.

If each of the above can be met within three paragraphs or one or two pages, I am game for it.

To me, any Management Summary that is less than three pages is too superficial. It will give decision-makers the impression that you have nothing credible and meaningful to convey.

My recommendation will be for an Executive Summary that can run up to five pages, unless the prospect has spelt out in the RFP the length they expect.

Of course, the content with all of the above parameters addressed can be covered within three, or even two, pages. But that will be at the cost of aesthetic design considerations.

How we make Personal Purchases!

Let us for a moment consider how individuals make personal purchase decisions.

  • Even to buy a $500 television set we all spend time scouring the net, reading product comparisons and making a thorough analysis before buying one.
  • That is because it is our personal money.

But, when corporate decisions cover hundreds of thousands of dollars why do we assume senior executives run out of time?

Executive SummaryBecause it is not their personal money but that of the businesses they are tasked with running?

Such an approach may be working in a region where professionalism is often at a discount. That is, however, no justification for not following best practices.

You run the risk of losing a bid because your response just skims the surface and gives the prospect no confidence in the proposed solution.

I close this post by emphasising my earlier point – you will never lose a bid just because decision-makers thought you had a five-page Executive Summary, including some graphics. Give it the attention it deserves but avoid going overboard with it.

G Joslin Vethakumar

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Filed under Bid Management, Bids and Proposals, Executive Summary

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