Win Business with Powerful Executive Summaries

By Heather Baldwin

You’ve just finished an important proposal. Now it’s time to summarize the main points into an executive summary and call it a day. If that sounds like your approach to proposal writing, you’re missing a valuable opportunity and might be losing sales, say David Pugh and Terry Bacon, authors of Powerful Proposals: How to Give Your Business the Winning Edge (AMACOM, 2005). The authors point out that the executive summary is what key executives are likely to read, and thus should be the primary instrument of your win strategy.

Contrary to what most people believe, the main purpose of an executive summary is not to summarize the offer or preview the content of a larger proposal, say the authors. Instead, a powerful executive summary does four things:

  • tells the story of your offer in terms of the customer’s issues and priorities;
  • answers the big four questions – Why us? Why not them? So what? How so? –every customer asks;
  • behaviorally differentiates your company in the mind of the customer, helping executives decide not just if they can work with you, but if they want to work with you; and
  • deepens your relationship with the customer and positions you for the long-term, win or lose.

So how do you get there? The best method is with a brochure-style summary. A brochure “is your best sales tool for communicating with customer personnel who, in all likelihood, will never read your proposal and may never even see it,” say Pugh and Bacon. “Its key advantage is being separately bound so it can be reproduced in greater numbers and handed out to all the influencers as well as the decision makers.” Pugh and Bacon say they see it all the time: a bidder brings six copies of the proposal and two dozen copies of the executive summary to a proposal presentation. At the end, proposal copies remain on the table, but the summaries disappear and the prospect later calls to request 50 more summaries.

Brochure-style summaries should be visual, with one to three visuals on a page surrounded by captions, theme statements, white space and precious little text, say the authors. An 8-page brochure works best for most readers and most proposals. Go much shorter than that and you won’t be able to tell your story effectively. If you use more than 8 to 12 pages, readers likely will start losing interest.

Most importantly, the brochure must tell the customer’s story – about how you translated the customer’s problems and needs into a solution and how you are partnering with the customer to solve those problems and achieve their goals. Because the summary should drive the proposal, it should be prepared first, not last, with the proposal expanding on the summary’s themes.

The process is challenging and time-consuming, but it is time well spent, say the authors. As one company discovered when it invested time, information, people and effort in a brochure-style executive summary as part of its proposal, its probability of closing the sale increased by 249%. Pugh and Bacon conclude, “The executive summary is the only part of a proposal key decision makers are likely to read in its entirety.” Make yours count.