How to Prepare an Executive Summary for your White Paper

After doing the research, it’s time for the writer to start drafting a six- or eight-page white paper, right? Wrong. An executive summary should come next. Without a direction blessed by the client, much of what the writer drafts could end up discarded. Instead, the writer should provide a short deliverable so the client and reviewers can confirm the proposed direction, usually no more than one page long.

Submitting an executive summary for the client to review benefits the project and people involved in several ways:

  • The writer provides a relatively fast deliverable, showing reviewers that the project is moving along quickly.

  • The writer provides a short deliverable, enabling busy reviewers to deal with a brief document that takes only a few minutes to review.

  • The writer doesn’t waste time writing a long document that may have to be scrapped in whole or in part.

  • The reviewers don’t waste time reviewing a long document that may be somewhat off target.

This step dramatically reduces the risk of any misunderstandings and rework later on.

Step Who What
5.1 Writer Creates 1- or 2-page draft executive summary
5.2 Writer Sends draft executive summary to client
5.3 Client Circulates draft executive summary to all reviewers with deadline for comments
5.4 Reviewers Comment on executive summary
5.5 Client Gathers all comments and resolves any differences
5.6 Writer Refines executive summary to incorporate comments
5.7 All Repeat steps 5.2 through 5.6 until all reviewers are satisfied with executive summary

What the writer does for the white paper executive summary

The writer boils down all the accumulated research into a one- or two-page summary with all the main points of the white paper for the client to review. After the client sends back all the reviewers’ comments, the writer refines the executive summary, if needed, and this process continues until everyone is satisfied.

This takes a lot of effort from the writer, including the hardest “thinking” part of the process. The good news is that after the writer finishes the executive summary and gets it approved by the client, the rest of the writing is relatively quick and easy, more like filling in the blanks than doing such hard thinking.

What the client does for the white paper executive summary

The client circulates the draft executive summary to all the reviewers and then gathers all comments by a set deadline. Most people can take five minutes to read through one page, especially if they were involved in the conference call that spelled out the paper’s direction. No surprises should appear in the executive summary.

How to craft the white paper executive summary

When writing the executive summary, you should use fairly finished sentences. A list of bare bullet points does nothing to convey a flow of ideas or showcase your command of the material. You can think of the executive summary as a collection of topic sentences; each sentence can be expanded into a paragraph or two in the final paper.

An executive summary can be done two different ways, as a trailer or a synopsis:

  • A trailer-style executive summary includes intriguing highlights from the white paper, intended to entice prospective readers into going through the full document.

  • A synopsis-style executive summary includes the whole argument of the white paper in condensed form. You don’t have to include more than two or three quotes or factoids in your summary, or maybe none at all, as long as you have all the sources you need to make your points close at hand.

How do you choose which type of executive summary to use? A synopsis gives a complete recap of the argument without leaving any gaps. You can also pop in a synopsis-style summary at the start of the final white paper, so you get to repurpose it in the finished document.

On the other hand, a trailer-style summary plays peekaboo with the content, without revealing the whole argument. This style assumes that every reviewer and reader have the time and interest to read the full document to get the entire story.

How to deal with comments on the white paper executive summary

Whether you’re a white paper client or a white paper writer, you have to deal with comments from reviewers. Most of their comments should be clear, constructive, and to the point. But what about the comments that are hopelessly unclear, destructive, or beside the point?

Don’t take it personally

First of all, don’t take the comments personally. Second, skip past those comments and move onto another reviewer’s comments. After some time has passed, go back to the upsetting comments and look at them again. Is there anything you missed the first time, some actual nugget of insight wrapped in all that negativity?

Ignore nonsense reviewers, if you can

If you can’t find anything of any merit in some reviewer’s comments, think about where that person sits in the company. Is that person your boss’s boss? A highly placed VP? The owner’s son? For the sake of politics, you may have to engage with him, perhaps just to let him blow off steam.

Give the writer some guidance

If you’re the client, you owe the writer some guidance on how to deal with comments from certain reviewers. Otherwise, the writer can waste a lot of time for nothing. The writer can implement certain suggestions you don’t agree with or struggle to resolve contradictory comments from different reviewers.

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