Anyone starting a new business must create a business plan that clearly outlines the organization’s details and goals. The executive summary is a crucial element of that business plan.
We’ll explore five steps to writing your business plan’s executive summary, including what to include and avoid. We’ll also point you toward executive summary templates to help you get started.
What is an executive summary?
New entrepreneurs or business owners typically use a business plan to present their great business idea to potential stakeholders like angel investors. The purpose of the business plan is to attract financing from investors or convince banking executives to get a bank loan for their business. An executive summary is a business plan overview that succinctly highlights its most essential elements.
It’s not just a general outline; the executive summary might be the only part of your business plan that busy executives and potential investors read.
“The executive summary of a business plan is designed to capture the reader’s attention and briefly explain your business, the problem you are solving, the target audience, and key financial information,” Ross Kimbarovsky, CEO and founder of Crowdspring, told Business News Daily. “If the executive summary lacks specific information or does not capture the attention of the reader, the rest of the plan might not be read.”
While your executive summary should be engaging and comprehensive, it must also be quick and easy to read. These documents average one to four pages – ideally, under two pages – and should comprise less than 10% of your entire business plan.
How do you write an executive summary?
Your executive summary will be unique to your organization and business plan. However, most entrepreneurs and business owners take the following five steps when creating their executive summary.
- Write your business plan first. The executive summary will briefly cover the most essential topics your business plan covers. For this reason, you should write the entire business plan first, and then create your executive summary. The executive summary should only cover facts and details included in the business plan.
- Write an engaging introduction. What constitutes “engaging” depends on your audience. For example, if you’re in the tech industry, your introduction may include a surprising tech trend or brief story. The introduction must be relevant to your business and capture your audience’s attention. It is also crucial to identify your business plan’s objective and what the reader can expect to find in the document.
- Write the executive summary. Go through your business plan and identify critical points to include in your executive summary. Touch on each business plan key point concisely but comprehensively. You may mention your marketing plan, target audience, company description, management team, and more. Readers should be able to understand your business plan without reading the rest of the document. Ideally, the summary will be engaging enough to convince them to finish the document, but they should be able to understand your basic plan from your summary. (We’ll detail what to include in the executive summary in the next section.)
- Edit and organize your document. Organize your executive summary to flow with your business plan’s contents, placing the most critical components at the beginning. A bulleted list is helpful for drawing attention to your main points. Double-check the document for accuracy and clarity. Remove buzzwords, repetitive information, qualifying words, jargon, passive language and unsupported claims. Verify that your executive summary can act as a standalone document if needed.
- Seek outside assistance. Since most entrepreneurs aren’t writing experts, have a professional writer or editor look over your document to ensure it flows smoothly and covers the points you’re trying to convey.
What should you include in an executive summary?
Your executive summary is based on your business plan and should include details relevant to your reader. For example, if your business plan’s goal is pitching a business idea to potential investors, you should emphasize your financial requirements and how you will use the funding.
The type of language you use depends on whether your audience consists of generalists or industry experts.
While executive summary specifics will vary by company, Marius Thauland, business strategist at OMD EMEA, says all executive summaries should include a few critical elements:
- Target audience
- Products and services
- Marketing and sales strategies
- Competitive analysis
- Funding and budget allocation for the processes and operations
- Number of employees to be hired and involved
- How you’ll implement the business plan
When synthesizing each section, highlight the details most relevant to your reader. Include any facts and statistics they must know. In your introduction, present pertinent company information and clearly state the business plan’s objective. To pinpoint key messages for your executive summary, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you want the reader to take away from the document?
- What do you want to happen after they read it?
“Put yourself in the business plan reader’s shoes, and think about what you would like to know in the report,” Thauland advised. “Get their attention by making it simple and brief yet still professional. It should also attract them to read the entire document to understand even the minute details.”
If securing financing is your priority, read our reviews of the best business loans to compare options.
What should you avoid in an executive summary?
When writing your executive summary, be aware of the following common mistakes:
- Making your executive summary too long. An executive summary longer than two pages will deter some readers. You’re likely dealing with busy executives, and an overlong stretch of text can overwhelm them.
- Copying and pasting from other executive summary sections. Reusing phrases from other sections and stringing them together without context can seem confusing and sloppy. It’s also off-putting to read the same exact phrase twice within the same document. Instead, summarize your business plan’s central points in new, descriptive language.
- Too many lists and subheadings in your executive summary. After one – and only one – introductory set of bullets, recap your business plan’s main points in paragraph form without subheadings. Concision and clarity are more important for an executive summary than formatting tricks.
- Passive or unclear language in your executive summary. You’re taking the reins of your business, and your executive summary should show that. Use active voice in your writing so everyone knows you’re running the show. Be as clear as possible in your language, leaving no questions about what your business will do and how it will get there.
- Avoid general descriptions in your executive summary. Kimbarovsky said it’s best to avoid generalities in your executive summary. For example, there’s no need to include a line about “your team’s passion for hard work.” This information is a given and will take attention away from your executive summary’s critical details.
- Don’t use comparisons in your executive summary. Kimbarovsky also advises staying away from comparisons to other businesses in your executive summary. “Don’t say you will be the next Facebook, Uber or Amazon,” said Kimbarovsky. “Amateurs make this comparison to try and show how valuable their company could be. Instead, focus on providing the actual facts that you believe prove you have a strong company. It’s better if the investor gives you this accolade because they see the opportunity.”
Executive summary templates and resources
If you’re writing an executive summary for the first time, online templates can help you outline your document. However, your business is unique, and your executive summary should reflect that. An online template probably won’t cover every detail you’ll need in your executive summary. Experts recommend using templates as general guidelines and tailoring them to fit your business plan and executive summary.
To get you started, here are some popular executive summary template resources:
- FormSwift. The FormSwift website lets you create and edit documents and gives you access to over 500 templates. It details what an effective executive summary includes and provides a form builder to help you create your executive summary. Fill out a step-by-step questionnaire and export your finished document via PDF or Word.
- Smartsheet. The Smartsheet cloud-based platform makes planning, managing and reporting on projects easier for teams and organizations. It offers several free downloadable executive summary templates for business plans, startups, proposals, research reports and construction projects.
- Template.net. The Template.net website provides several free business templates, including nine free executive summary templates that vary by project (e.g., business plan, startup, housing program development, proposal or marketing plan). Print out the templates and fill in your relevant details.
- TemplateLab. The TemplateLab website is a one-stop shop for new business owners seeking various downloadable templates for analytics, finance, HR, marketing, operations, project management, and time management. You’ll find over 30 free executive summary templates and examples.
- Vertex42. The Vertex42 website offers Excel templates for executive summaries on budgets, invoices, project management and timesheets, as well as Word templates for legal forms, resumes and letters. This site also provides extensive information on executive summaries and a free executive summary template you can download into Word or Google Docs.
Summing it all up
Your executive summary should preview your business plan in, at most, two pages. Wait until your business plan is complete to write your executive summary, and seek outside help as necessary. A thorough, engaging business plan and executive summary are well worth the time and money you put into them.
Max Freedman contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.