The ReSSI project is fast approaching its conclusion. What a year it has been! The team has been hard at work on the various case studies, the third (draft final) report has been submitted, and I have been asked to rewrite our executive summary. Oh, I see.
Like any other researcher, I must have read dozens of Executive Summaries. I even wrote a couple of them myself, one for my PhD and another one for the Jewellery CSR project. But I not happy with either. They are too long, too detailed, and don’t really grab the reader’s attention.
It turns out that writing abstracts for academic papers is very different from writing executive summaries for project reports. Yes, both are sections that you write at the end of the piece, to summarise the work you’ve done. But that’s where the similarities end. And it can be surprisingly difficult to get the tone of the Exec Summary right, even for experienced academics.
So what is the way forward? As with so much else in life, one solution springs to mind: Google it. Yes, I know.
I found two very useful resources: SkillsYouNeed and WikiHow.
From the first, I got the idea that there are two important questions you need to ask yourself before writing an Exec Summary:
Who is the intended audience of my executive summary?
Which of the contents of the paper that I am summarising do they really need to know?
This sounds like basic stuff, but it’s fundamental: the Executive Summary is based on the needs of the reader. Your findings are only important in the sense that they can help with somebody’s problem. The ‘contribution’ of your research is only as important as the problem it helps solve.
From WikiHow I am getting a set of six points:
Understand that an executive summary is a short review of a business document. “Short” and “review” are the key words here.
Make sure it adheres to certain stylistic and structural guidelines: Short and concise (again); should make sense if you haven’t read the original report; written in language that is appropriate for the target audience.
Define the problem, in clear, understandable terms.
Provide a solution. In social science, academic papers ‘address questions’. Exec summaries provide solutions. Go big, or go home.
Use graphics, bullet points, and headings if the document is easier to skim that way. An image is worth a thousand words, and nobody was going to read a thousand words in the first place. Paint a picture, it lasts longer.
Keep the writing fresh and jargon-free. Picture your audience trying to find their way through a jungle of acronyms and discipline-specific terms. Then picture how far they’ll throw your Executive Summary once they get frustrated with your writing.
In short, if you are lucky enough to be the able to write an Executive Summary for a project, don’t waste the opportunity. Try to make it count with the people who can use the findings. Good luck!