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I recently spent four days in Brussels working with 15 international auditors from the banking industry on how to write effective, action-oriented audit reports. One of topics of this integrated workshop was Executive Summaries. This topic is often a pain point in writing workshops: What to include? How much to include? In what order? Can I just do a quick copy/paste from the detailed body of the report?
During the workshop, participants learned how to craft an executive summary and the importance of identifying stakeholders and their needs before starting to write. When participants add a dash of good language and a pinch of critical thinking, their executive summaries will be something their stakeholders enjoy reading. (Or at least won’t get indigestion from.)
Create a fine-dining experience for your reader
Something clicked for me after this particular workshop: an executive summary is, or should be, similar to the tasting menu we enjoyed during an extravagant fine-dining experience one evening in Brussels.
A tasting menu is the perfect opportunity for a chef and a restaurant to demonstrate their culinary expertise. It allows the chef to use the finest ingredients while creating a higher-value offering for guests.
By choosing the tasting menu, a guest knows they will dine on unique and delicious food they won’t eat anywhere else. It’s more expensive, but it’s exclusive.
A tasting menu creates an opportunity to forge a deeper connection with the chef, and have a memorable dining experience overall.
So, what is a tasting menu?
A tasting menu is a selection of small plates or dishes with a fixed number of courses for a set price. The number of courses and what is offered on each plate is determined by the chef.
All dishes are smaller portions so guests can sample the best without having to eat too much. According to dining experts, these small plates tells a story, with each course seamlessly flowing from one to the next.
How does this relate to executive summaries?
- An executive summary should contain the highlights of the detailed work you documented in the body of your report. If your reader wants more, they can refer back to the detailed report.
- The content and structure within the executive summary should tell a story, with each section flowing logically to the next based on relevance to the stakeholders.
- The executive summary should showcase your professionalism: the quality of the work you performed should shine through, and your critical thinking skills should be evident.
- The reader is guided through the executive summary with concise bites of key information via subtitles, bullet points and conclusions.
- The conciseness of your writing ensures the stakeholder invests an acceptable amount of their most precious resource: their time.
Evaluating return on investment
A restaurant must evaluate the return on investment when offering a tasting menu. Are the portions too big? Too small? Does the story told by the plates develop the character of the experience? Does that experience provide enough value for money?
Just as the vision for the menu comes from the chef, you create the content of the executive summary.
The content and the level of summarization should give the reader exactly what they need, in just the right amount. The reader should not be left hungry for important information, or feeling like they are missing key information within the story. If the reader wants ‘seconds’, they can dig into the detailed body of your report.
Sharpen your skills
Remember that 3-Michelin-star chefs studied, trained and practiced their craft, usually for years, before being awarded those stars. So keep learning, practicing and improving your executive summary skills.
Get feedback from your stakeholders, get coaching from someone who knows, or take a course to learn more. You might even try modelling your summary after one that has already been recognized by senior management as hitting all the right notes on being clear, concise and persuasive.
Wishing you every success in writing your next executive summary!
P.S.: To get a burst of communication inspiration for your audit team, book Tracie for your next global team event.
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