Guide for Writing Executive Summaries

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Guide for Writing Executive Summaries

Transcript Of Guide for Writing Executive Summaries

GAO
May 1986

United States Gene-d Accounting Office
Guide for W iritin g Executive Summaries

.

PREFACE

This guide provides

supplementary

guidance to support GAO's

current

policy

(contained

in Chapter 11 of the Report Manual) that

all chapter

format reports

will contain

executive

summaries.

It

contains

instructions

for writing

executive

summaries and includes

examples of executive

summaries from issued reports,

an executive

summary checklist,

and a "Background"

worksheet,

as further

help

in drafting

executive

summaries.

It should be useful in training

new supervisors

and report reviewers

and writer-editors,

and as a

convenient

reference

tool for more experienced

staff.

While the

structure

of an executive

summary is much more formal,

much of the

guidance for preparing

executive

summaries can be applied in

preparing

letter

reports

and briefing

documents when it is

important

to concisely

summarize our work.

Beginning

with page 6, the

each instruction

page are sample

Three of the executive

summaries

reproduced

in their entirety

in

guide is set up so that opposite

sections

of executive

summaries.

used as examples in the guide are

the appendices

to this document.

As new policy guide, in addition updated.

evolves or existing

policy is modified,

this

to Chapter 11 of the Report Manual, will be

Donald J. Assistant
Planning

foran

Comptroller

General

and Reporting

May 30, 1986

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

What is an Executive

Summary?

Why is it Ideal for Busy Readers?

Sections/modules

Format/length

Suggestions

and Reminders

Tone and balance

Clarity

Conciseness

Relationships

among modules

Style

MODULE CONTENTS

Purpose

Background

Results

in Brief

Principal

Findings

or

Recommendations

Matters

for Congressional

Agency Comments

GAO's Analysis Consideration

Page
1
1 1 2 2 2 3 3 4 4 5
5
6 8 10 12 14 16 18

APPENDICES

I Executive

Summary Checklist

21

II

Background

Worksheet

25

Examples of Issued Executive

Summaries:

III

Executive

Summary:

Overview of the Dairy Surplus

27

Issue--Policy

Options for

Congressional

Consideration

(GAO/RCED-85-132)

IV Executive

Summary:

Effects

and Administration

33

of the 1984 Milk Diversion

Program (GAO/RCED-85-126)

V Executive

Summary:

Stabilizing

Social Security--

39

Which Wage Measure Would Best

Align Benefit

Increases

With

Revenue Increases?

(GAO/IMTEC-85-13)

- - _ - -ll__---GUIDE FOR WRITING EXECUTIVE SUMMARIES

1---p----

----y--
INTRODUCTION
W hat is an E x e c u t iv e Summary?

W hy is it Ideal for Readers?

Busy

D e s igned s p e c ific a lly ---.-1--P

-.-----me-

----

I--_

_I-
for the people GKO most

wants to influence,

the executive

summary tells

the reader the essential

information

he or she

should know about a report--the

main message.

The reader should be able to discern precisely

the main message and major implications

of the

report s imply by reading its executive

summary.

The executive

summary only contains

information

germane to the report's

main message.

Further,

it does not try to prove our points by presenting

all the relevant

data; rather,

it gives the key

points and the key analyses to support these

points.

The standard captions

also speed the writing

process --writers

do not have to devise their own

side captions.

And the executive

summary's

short, modular sections

are easy to write because

each module has a predefined

purpose.

It

contains

no long stretches

where writers

have to

invent the structure

for what they are saying.

The concise modular format allows audiences

with different

backgrounds

and interests

to

understand

issues quickly

without

having to read

information

they already know. For example, a

reader who has more specific

knowledge,

e.g., the

requestor,

will be able to s k ip the "Background"

module and turn immediately

to the "Results

in

Brief"

or "Principal

Findings"

module.

O thers in

our audience who cannot be assumed to have a

background

in the program under review can rely

on the "Background"

module for the information

they need to understand

the rest of the executive

summary.

The standard

marginal

captions

make it

easy for the reader to focus on the sections

he/she considers

to be important.

1

Sections/ modules
Format/length Suggestions and Reminders

The executive

summary is divided

into six (and

sometimes seven) standard

titled

sections

0;

t 1

modules to permit busy readers to identify

easily

the information

they want to read.

The sections

are

--Purpose

--Background

--Results

in Brief

--GAO's Analysis,

OR

Principal

Findings

(whichever

--Recommendations

--Agency

Comments

is appropriate)

In addition,

the executive

"Matters

for Congressional

when appropriate.

summary can contain a

Consideration"

module

Modules never merely repeat facts contained

in,

or summarize the contents

of, other modules.

Repetition

may divert

readers'

attention

from the

message.

Each major point,

or the main message,

of the report should be presented

just once in

the executive

summary.

Specific

guidance on what information

to include

1

in each section

is provided

in detail

beginning

/

on page 6.

!

Maximum length is 4 pages in a 3/4-column

format

with boldfaced

captions

in the margins.

Subcaptions

can be used only in the "Principal

Findings"

or "GAO's Analysis"

module and should

not be boldface.

Neither

captions

nor

subcaptions

should exceed 3 lines.

Remember that many readers will read only the

I

executive

summary.

It is therefore

essential

that it present the main message clearly,

as well

as accurately

and fairly.

One measure of an

executive

summary's clarity

is whether it is

1

understandable

to those who have no knowledge of

Y

the program or subject

on which we are

/

reporting.

These readers must be able to

comprehend our executive

summaries in one reading

without

referring

to the report's

text.

In

particular,

a reader should not need to reread a

sentence or paragraph

in order to understand

it.

2

Tone and balance
Clarity

Much of the following

guidance has a general

reference

source in existing

GAO policy.

We

present them here to provide operational

help in

producing

effective

executive

summaries.

--Present

the results

of our work in a balanced,

fair manner.

Focusing only on the negative

aspects of agency performance

and ignoring

relevant

positive

performance

identified

in

report

can be unfair

to the subject

of our

review.

It also can leave an inaccurate

perception

among our readers about GAO's

objectivity.

Where the report identifies

relevant

and valid positive

steps the agency

taken, or a perspective

alternative

to GAO's,

these should be recognized

fairly

in the

executive

summary.

the has

--Maintain

a dispassionate,

tone, one which neither

understates

the report's

angry language detracts

of our reports.

analytic, overstates
message. from the

professional

nor

Emotional

or

professionalism

--Use only well-known,

commonly-used

abbreviations

and acronyms,

such as FBI and NASA, but spell

them out the first

time they are used.

For

uncommon abbreviations,

consider

other references

after the initial

identification,

such as "the

Bank" for the Federal Home Loan Bank, or

"Commerce" for the Department

of Commerce.

--Avoid

using jargon--

technical

language not

generally

understood

outside

a specific

profession.

Instead,

consider

using a generally

recognized

term which, although

less precise,

conveys the meaning to a necessary

extent.

If

jargon is unavoidable,

define the term in a

simple manner when it is first

used (perhaps

in

the "Background"

section,

if the definition

runs

longer than a sentence).

--Although

using simple,

nontechnical

words,

summarizing

or paraphrasing

are encouraged

executive

summary, in some instances

it is

appropriate.

Key language in the body of

report should not be paraphrased

if doing

change or distort

the main message.

and in an not the so will

--Use graphs and charts to present complex or

difficult-to-understand

data and to focus

readers'

attention

on key messages, particularly

if they replace

lengthy

narrative.

If they

require

long explanation,

however, charts and

graphs should not be used in an executive

summary.

3

Conciseness

--When a report

is complex and/or contains

a number

of issues,

executive

summaries can be kept short

by discussing

complex points in a general way, or

by presenting

only the key issues.

That is,

acknowledge

an issue's

complexity

and summarize

our principal

message without

extensively

discussing

the details.

Similarly,

when the

report

addresses

many issues,

discussing

only the

main issues and perhaps only referring

briefly

to

those of lesser importance,

will help keep

executive

summaries short.

--Use page references

refer readers to

conclusions,

and

agency's

comments

planned.

Providing

cannot, however,

of clear summary

order to understand

report.

to the body of the report to

the details

of our findings,

recommendations,

and to the

and/or actions

taken or

page references

to the report

substitute

for the presentation

statements

a reader needs in

the major message of the

--I.Jse short sentences

and paragraphs.

--Avoid

repetition

of facts among the modules.

;

Each major point should be presented

just once in

/

the executive

summary.

!

--Do not introduce

facts or opinions

in the body of the report.

that are not

--Use bullets

to avoid wordiness.

l

Relationships among modules

--Establish

a clear linkage among the modules.

For

example, "Results

in Brief"

must address,

in a

conclusionary

way, the objectives

or questions

presented

in the "Purpose"

module; "Principal

Findings"

should provide specific

support for the

"Results

in Brief"

statements;

and

recommendations

should be directly

associated

with the conclusions

and findings

they address.

--Make it easy for readers to follow the linkage or

logical

relationship

between the "Purpose,"

"Results

in Brief,"

"Principal

Findings"

(or

"GAO's Analysis"),

and "Recommendations"

modules.

The sequence of information

in each of

t

these sections

should parallel

the sequence in

1 ,

the others.

4

--Although

the sequence of information

within

executive

summary module is parallel

to the

sequence in all other modules,

it does not

necessarily

reflect

the arrangement

of

information

presented

in the report.

For

example,

the arrangement

of the report's

principal

conclusions

which are provided

in

"Results

in Brief"

section

should be parallel

the report's

objectives

shown in the "Purpose"

module but need not reflect

the arrangement

the body of the report.

each
the to
of

--Whatever

elements of a finding

you determine

are

needed in an executive

summary (based upon the

objectives

of the work) should be included.

Their placement

will vary.

Very often,

criteria

fit well in the "Background"

module.

Sometimes,

however,

you may wish to include

criteria

in the

"Principal

Findings"

or "Purpose"

sections.

Further,

cause and effect

fit well in the

"Results

in Brief"

module of many executive

summaries.

In others,

however,

they are equally

well-placed

in the "Principal

Findings"

section.

The elements'

placement

in the executive

summary

depends a great deal on the nature of the issues

being addressed

and the manner in which you

address them.

Style

--Use qualifying

phrases,

such as "GAO believes"

and "in GAO's opinion,"

when necessary,

to avoid

misleading

the reader.

But don't overdo it.

--Do not use footnotes

in

They take up space often

presenting

the report's

an executive better used
main message.

summary. in

--Use third person construction

rather

than "we recommend").

("GAO recommends,"

MODULE CONTENTS

The following

pages (6-20) describe

the contents

of each executive

summary module/section

on the

left-hand

pages and provide one or two examples

on the right-hand

pages.

The list in Appendix I,

PP* 21 to 24, also can be used to check

contents

of draft executive

summaries.

the All are

intended

to provide maximum help to staff who are

drafting

executive

summaries,

and not to suggest

exact language

to be used.

However,

no

guidelines

can replace good judgment.

Perhaps

the most important

thing to keep in mind is, "How

can I best serve my readers?"

5

PURPOSE

This one-or accomplish

two-paragraph three things:

module should

--catch --explain --tell

the reader's

attention,

why GAO undertook

the

the reader our objectives

review,

and

for the report.

First,

the opening idea should convince

our

i

readers that the report's

topics are important

and worth the busy reader's

time.

Topics that

may serve as a hook to catch a reader's

attention

n

include:

--importance

--significance

--impact

on

--possible

examined

--need for

--congressional

of the program,

of the issues,

the public,

serious consequences

it,

immediate

attention

interest.

if we had not to something,

Caution:

The opening idea should not

overdramatize

or overstate

the nature of the

report's

topics,

nor should it contain

findings

!

of the review on which we are writing

the report.

Next, this module should also explain

the

1

reason(s)

for doing the review.

When work is not

self-initiated,

the congressional

request or

statutory

requirement

to which the report

responds should be identified.

However, a

citation

to GAO's broad legal authority

for

conducting

audits should not appear in this

module.

Only when GAO is directed

by a specific

law to do a review,

do we cite the law as the

reason for doing the work.

When work is

self-initiated,

state why it was important

and

any underlying

questions.

The third goal of this module is to tell the

reader the objectives

of the report--what

questions

or issues the report actually

addresses.

When a report has a number of

objectives,

select only those which are relevant

to the main message of the report and indicate

their relative

importance

by the prominence

of

their position.

Let the reader know when there

are objectives

in the report that were not

selected

for inclusion

in the executive

summary.

(For example, "Issues involving

internal

controls

are addressed

in the report.

(See p. -.))"

6
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