Executive Summaries

Executive Summaries
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The terms “executive summary“ and “abstract” are often confused. Indeed, many people use them interchangeably. There is nothing wrong with this practice, but in this handout, I will be making a distinction between them and will recommend that you learn a difference between them. First, I suggest you go to the Purdue Owl website which I recommended to you before (owl.english.purdue.edu). Type “abstract” in the search blank and read about two types of abstracts: the descriptive abstract and the informational abstract. To help you better understand the difference between the two, I will call the informational abstract the “executive summary”.

Let’s begin with some examples of how and why these two kinds of writing are used. The descriptive abstract, or what I call simply, the abstract, is used to pique the readers’ interest and to let them know what is in the report without giving it all away. One example of an abstract is the brief synopsis of a speech given in a Conference Program. It lets people know what the talk will be about so they can decide whether they want to attend or not. Another example, is the abstract given before an article in a professional journal. The abstract will tell a little about what is in the article. The reader, looking for information on a particular topic can read the abstract and decide whether s/he wants to read the whole article. The abstract will tell the reader whether the information in the article pertains to the line of research the reader is following.

Here’s an example:

Teachers of technical writing typically have limited knowledge of the principles of effective pictorial communication.(States the Problem) Goldsmith’s rhetorically oriented theory of illustration offers the necessary guidelines. (Hints at the Solution) This theory is easily accessed through a practical 12-question heuristic that directs the technical writer’s composition and evaluation of pictorial images. (Hints at the details of the Solution) (Dragga, pg. 47, 1973)

Notice how the writer introduces the topic of the article that will follow, but doesn’t give the reader the elements of effective pictorial communication. Furthermore, the reader will have to read the article to find out about Goldsmith’s theory and to learn what the 12 questions are that will help designers evaluate visual images. If this were an executive summary, the reader would not have to read the article to learn those things.

The executive summary, which the Purdue site calls the “informational abstract,” on the other hand is written for the busy manager so that s/he will not have to read the rest of the report. The executive summary tells as many facts and details as possible. Imagine that you are a manager and must go into a meeting and act intelligent and well-informed about an important topic. Unfortunately, you do not have time to read the entire report that your staff has provided you. What should you do? This is the very type of situation that caused the executive summary to be invented.

The executive officer of the company must have a miniature version of the report. It must be short, but it must cover all the important details and examples. It must have the background, state the problem, give solutions, and even counter the ideas of the opposition. And the executive summary normally is divided into paragraphs that correspond to the larger sections of the report. Indeed, it is the report, but in a version that can be read in just a short time.

The executive summary, then, is very different from an abstract. Recall that the abstract only hints at the information in the report. The executive summary is smaller version of the entire report.

To write it, go through your entire report after it is written. Then ask yourself, “What if I had to tell the whole report to someone while standing at a cocktail party or by the water cooler? What would I say?”

Here is an example executive summary written by a student. I’ve marked some of the points you might want to remember as you write your own executive summaries. Notice how this executive summary could stand as the entire report. It gives the busy executive enough information to talk intelligently about the issues in the report.

Executive Summary

The lack of Internet privacy has and will affect people around the world because the Internet makes it easy for information to be taken and used by almost anyone. (Introduces the topic.) The topic of Internet privacy covers many areas, but the three addressed in this report are: business and personal privacy problems, possible solutions, and opposition to the solutions. (A thesis statement that outlines the entire paper, word for word from the Introduction.)

Some privacy problems occur in the work place because most companies monitor their employees’ Internet activity. (States the Problem.) For example, some managers read their employees’ e-mail and monitor their employees’ web surfing habits. (Gives specific examples of the problem.) Other problems arise from databases that collect personal information given over the Internet. For example, information given to various web sites and in e-mail are placed in a file, which can be accessed by anyone for a small fee, leaving everyone vulnerable to such things as snooping and stolen identities. These databases receive their information from web sites that request personal information from the web surfers that travel through their sites. This can be done because many web sites that request information don’t inform the web surfers about what they are going to do with the information. (Sentences give details about the problem.)

One possible solution lies in the hands of industry leaders such as IBM, Microsoft, and Netscape Communications. (Offers the Solution to the Problem.) These industry leaders have been trying to come up with a “third-party” that should oversee all web site safety standards in order to provide more Internet privacy.

The problem with this “third-party,” which was later named the Open Profiling Standard (OPS), is that it does not erase the information that the Internet databases have already collected. In addition, purist Internet advocates argue that the Internet is a “free” form of communication and should have no regulation. (Demonstrates the Opposition to the Solution.)

If industry leaders don’t implement a plan by December of 1998, the government may step in. The President would have Congress pass new legislation in the hopes that it will protect Internet privacy. (The Conclusion speaks to the consequences if the Problem isn’t solved). Most experts agree that the Internet needs to be secure and that not just one group should be designated to protect Internet privacy. They suggest that government, industry leaders, and the public need to work together to protect Internet privacy. (Concludes.)


Dragga, Sam. Evaluating pictorial Illustrations. Technical Communication Quarterly, Spring, 1993.

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