When Do You Write an Executive Summary?

The very worst time to write an executive summary is when the person finally gets a free hour or two right before or right after the last review. When this happens, there are simply not enough review cycles to perfect this key part of the proposal.

I still hear a debate on when an executive summary should be written–first or last? I’ll bet you have heard it too. People have very strong opinions about this.

Those who have attended the various proposal writing courses are drilled in the concept that the executive summary should be written first.

Then there are the rebels who say, “But the executive summary cannot be written first because we don’t know what we’re writing about: we’re still developing and iterating the approach.”

Their reasoning goes something like this: toward the end of the proposal we will know the topic and all the win themes a lot better than we do when we’re just starting out. So they postpone the writing until the proposal is almost done.

Certainly the executive summary needs to be continually edited through repeated iterations, right through to the very end so that it accurately reflects and highlights the main points and thrust of the proposal as it stands when the process is complete.

The problem with starting the executive summary at the end is that it is created as a kind of an afterthought, and does not allow for sufficient review cycles to sharpen and hone the arguments, and to make this very important part of the document shine—and sing!

Also, if without repeated iterations, there is no chance to polish and refine the surface details. This is a sure-fire recipe for creating an unprofessional document full of bloopers or even basic grammar and spelling errors that create a very bad first impression. In addition, you lose a great opportunity to allow the executive summary to guide the process when you leave drafting of the executive summary until the end.

When do you usually write the Executive Summary?

About the Author: Olessia Smotrova-Taylor is President and CEO of OST Global Solutions, Inc. (http://www.ostglobalsolutions.com), a capture and proposal consulting company that helps clients win government contracts.

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Thomas Tong

Personally, I have multiple approaches – at the beginning…to help align the proposal writing team. During the review cycles to check assumptions and validate win themes, and finally at the end…since many things can change…from the RFQ/RFP itself to the overall approach and solution design.

If writing at the beginning – I have found it to be a very useful tool for alignment and brainstorming. Of greatest value is teasing out win themes. From my experience with projects that exceed 50m, I prefer only to present win themes in the executive summary…and avoid the approach.

If writing during – I have found it valuable as a tool to keep alignment. It also helps organize the proposal writing team, as it becomes very clear by that stage of development….who can really contribute…and the quality/value of the contribution

If writing at the end – I do think it is important to align the executive summary with the body of the proposal…if it is a smaller proposal. It is always good to make the executive summary a skeleton of the body, since many people do not actually ready the whole proposal. I have been close to decision panels and individuals, wherein behind close doors…the proposal is not actually reviewed in an objective or complete manner. The executive summary is critical with teams that have little bandwidth for an exhaustive review.

Although a tangent, I always prefer to embed “learning capture” events through the proposal cycle as it truly helps to create alignment and move the action forward…eliminating the “midnight hour” crisis.

Interesting topic. Regards, Thomas.

Peter Sperry

I usually write an executive summary when a subordinate office submits a proposal that is so long, so confusing and so full of jargony buzz words that no one in our intended audiance will read it. It is easier to prepare an executive summary than to ask the originators to rewite their proposal. It also save a great deal of editing and arguing.