Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
April 23, 2024 · 10 min read

How to write an executive summary stakeholders will love

How to write an executive summary stakeholders will love

Project managers are born communicators. According to some estimates, PMs spend 90% of their time communicating with team members, sponsors, and stakeholders.

An executive summary is your secret weapon when it comes to project communication.

Whether it’s a business case, project plan, or market analysis, an executive summary is a great way to get the project’s most important information across quickly and clearly.

But, how do you distill complex information into just a few paragraphs while still portraying your vision and enabling decision-making?

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In this guide, we’ll decode the process of writing effective executive summaries, from what to include and practical examples you can follow on your next project.

What is an executive summary? Why is it so important in project management?

An executive summary is an overview that summarizes all of a project or larger document’s key information, including the context, achievements and challenges, and recommendations.

As the name implies, an executive summary is often written for project stakeholders (usually senior executives) whose time is stretched. Executive summaries are used in many business documents as they’re a great mechanism to quickly report progress, help solve problems, or make critical decisions.

An executive summary is your secret weapon when it comes to project communication.

In project management specifically, executive summaries are most commonly used in business cases, project status reports, project plans, and project closure documents. This is because these documents are often tied to important events or decision-making points where stakeholder engagement and alignment are essential to progress.

If you’re trying to improve your project communication, here are some benefits executive summaries provide project managers and their stakeholders.

How is an executive summary different from other project documents?

Because of their popularity, executive summaries often get confused with other summary-style sections within project documents.

To avoid confusion, here are some of the key differences between the most popular ones:

Executive summary Project overview Project proposal Project next steps
What is it? Pulls out the key highlights of a project document, specifically to report progress, articulate a problem, or gain a decision. Used to describe the project’s background, purpose, and benefit to the business. Most commonly used in a business case to ‘sell’ a project idea, including the benefits it will deliver to the business. Are exactly as they sound — they describe the next steps to progress the project.
What does it include? Includes information on the project’s context, key achievements and challenges, requests for support, and future recommendations. Includes details of the project’s background, its purpose, key metrics such as the cost and timeline, and the benefit it will deliver to the business. Includes a project’s rationale, forecasted costs, timelines, resources, and benefits. Includes a list of actions to be taken on the project, who will undertake them, and when they’ll be completed.
How is it unique? Are a part of a particular document (they’re not a document in themselves), and they’re used to drive a specific outcome. Provides context and information to stakeholders on the current position of a project. Used to ‘sell’ a project idea, convincing stakeholders to approve a particular initiative or idea. Shows a clear list of tasks that, when completed, will move the project forward.

What to include in an executive summary: 4 key elements

The art of writing a great executive summary lies within its content. Executive summaries are short and to the point, providing a distilled view of the project while surfacing the key achievements, problems, or decisions. If you write long-winded paragraphs or multiple pages, you probably need to start again.

To help strike the balance, here are the four components of the perfect executive summary:

Illustration in blues and black showing the four key element of what to put in an executive summary, each with their own blue square and small icon

1. The background and context

Remind the reader what your project is about, how long it will run for, and what it aims to achieve.

Keep this to a maximum of 3 sentences.

2. The current status or problem

If your executive summary is to provide a status update, highlight the key actions and achievements since the previous update. If your executive summary asks for support on an issue or decision, articulate your current problem.

Keep this to a maximum of 4 sentences.

3. The next steps or solutions

For a status update, highlight the key actions or plans for the next 4–6 weeks. For a problem that needs solving, identify 1–3 possible solutions and a summary of the pros and cons.

Keep this to a maximum of 4 sentences.

4. The recommendation

For a problem-based executive summary, provide a recommendation from the project team on how to solve it and why you recommend this option. This helps guide the reader and provides confidence that you have thoroughly evaluated the situation.

Keep this to a maximum of 2 sentences.

Executive summary example #1: Project status update

Background: The Beemax Replacement project will replace FordX’s current CRM system with a modern, AI-enabled alternative by 31st December. This will enable the sales team to maximize efficiency and drive a forecasted monthly increase in sales of 23% (c.$60,000) from 1st January.

Current status: In the last four weeks, the project has progressed to plan, completing all the required technical analysis and formally completing the Design Phase (Gate 2). The budget and scope remain on track, but there are risks to the project’s software development resources following a resignation. This risk is under management, and no action is required at this stage.

Next steps: In the next four weeks, the project will progress into the Build Phase (Phase 3). This phase will last until October, with the aim of creating the first product version ready for user testing (November).

Recommendation: The project remains well-controlled and will continue to report any issues as they arise to the monthly project Steering Committee, chaired by Mark Wilson (Chief Technology Officer).

Executive summary example #2: Resource decision

Background: The Beemax Replacement project will replace FordX’s current CRM system with a modern, AI-enabled alternative by 31st December. This will enable the sales team to maximize efficiency and drive a forecasted monthly increase in sales of 23% (c.$60,000) from 1st January.

Problem: Following a resignation, Beemax has no software development resources with the skills and expertise to progress the project. This is further impacted by a talent shortage in the recruitment market, meaning a suitable replacement would take c.three months to hire on a permanent contract. This three-month lead time would delay the project’s timelines and cause a loss of approximately $42,000 in project benefits.

Solution: The project requests support to resolve this issue by taking one of the following options:

  1. Hire a fixed-term contractor resource at approximately 1.5x permanent market value. This would cause the project to exceed its forecasted budget by $22,000.
  2. Utilize the services of DataSupport, an expert CRM migration consultant, who would provide resources to support. This would cause the project to exceed its budget by $36,000, but thanks to their delivery capability, the project would finish two weeks ahead of plan.
  3. Accept the three-month lead time to hire a permanent resource and the loss of approximately $42,000 of project benefit.

Recommendation: Based on the analysis, the project team recommends option B. DataSupport is a known supplier with a strong track record. While their costs are higher than option A, if the project finishes ahead of schedule, an increase in benefits will offset the additional costs to the project budget.

How to write a great executive summary for your next project

Like many things in project management, nailing the perfect executive is easier when you follow a logical set of process steps to follow. But it still takes practice.

To help you get started, here’s a 6-step guide to writing an executive summary for your next project:

1. Define the objective of your executive summary

Before you begin typing, you need to have your executive summary objective clear in your mind. Depending on the project document, spend some time defining the objective of your executive summary and what you want the reader to do, or take away, after reading it.

To help with this, try completing the following sentence in your mind:

‘Once Stakeholder X has read this executive summary, they will… know XYZ / be able to help me solve XYZ / be able to make XYZ decision.’

Real-life example:

Ryan is currently managing an IT server upgrade project for Invest&Go, an online investment platform. The project has been running for six months and is in the Build phase.

Ryan is preparing his monthly project committee report and knows he must request an additional budget due to inflation causing hardware prices to increase. He knows the executive summary must clearly explain the context, problem, and recommendation to enable his Sponsor to approve the additional budget.

2. Ensure your broader project document lays a strong foundation

An executive summary is an overview of a particular document (such as a project plan) that summarizes all of the key information. To start, you must ensure your broader document is complete, as this is the foundation you need to craft an effective summary.


To make your broader document as comprehensive as possible, consider including the following:

Real-life example:

Ryan completes his project committee report, including updates on the timelines, resources, risks, and issues. For the budget update, Ryan uses market and economic information to highlight how costs have increased due to inflation. He asks colleagues in finance to review and provide additional inputs and context where required.

3. Re-review and pull out the key elements

Once the bulk of your document is up to date, you can begin pulling together your executive summary. Re-review your project document and pull out the key elements that will form your executive summary.

To help, use the structure we shared earlier in this article as a template for the right level of details:

Real-life example:

With his project committee report complete, Ryan writes the first draft of his executive summary.

He begins by providing context on the upgrade project, including where the project is within the project plan and forecasted benefits. Ryan then articulates the current problem with his budget and the reasons for cost increases.

The executive summary then offers up three potential solutions to move forward, one of which Ryan recommends on the advice of the project team.

4. Edit for audience and tone and remove jargon and buzzwords

Once your first draft is completed, it’s time to begin the editing process. A great executive summary must be tailored to the reader, ensuring it’s written in a way that allows them to get an update, solve a problem, or make a decision.

Re-review your executive summary, working to refine the following areas:

Real-life example:

Ryan reviews his executive summary to ensure it’s easy to understand and pitched at the right level for his sponsor, the CTO.

He knows the sponsor has a strong technical background and has been regularly involved in the project, so he can use some commonly known acronyms and keep the context and background brief.

As a financial service company, Invest&Go has a formal company culture, so he removes colloquial language to hit the right tone of voice.

5. Share with a trusted colleague for feedback

All good project management governance includes a review from someone on the outside. This not only provides a good level of project feedback but serves as a good test that your executive summary is easy to understand and aligns with your objective.

Screenshot of an issue in Planio from Ema Raven asking Gerrit Miller to review the attached executive summary PDF and answer the questions listed below

Share your executive summary with a trusted colleague and ask them for feedback. To help, ask them the following questions:

Real-life example:

Ryan shared his executive summary with a Senior Project Manager, John, who’s also his mentor. John provides largely positive feedback but suggests updating the problem statement to make it more concise and understandable.

6. Rewrite and improve with fresh eyes, then publish.

A great writing tip is to re-review your drafts with fresh eyes before publishing. Take the time to read and review your executive summary later, as you may spot mistakes or further improvements.

Once you’re happy, publish your document and issue it to the reader. If you’re asking a stakeholder to make a key decision or solve a problem, make sure you issue the document with enough time for them to digest and ask questions.

Real-life example:

Ryan reviews his executive summary the following day, spotting two grammatical errors he has previously missed. Ryan would like his sponsor to make a decision in the upcoming project committee meeting, so he issues the report three days before to give everyone enough time to review and ask questions.

Should you use AI to write your executive summary?

In recent years, many people have turned to AI writing tools, such as ChatGPT, to help them craft the perfect project documents.

When it comes to executive summaries, while these tools can be useful, you shouldn’t rely on them entirely, as some elements just can’t be automated.

Illustration in blues and blacks showing the list below with small icons, with the title Should you use AI to write your executive summary?

For executive summaries, use AI writing tools to:

But, make sure you manually:

Ultimately, AI writing tools can be great additions to your writing process — but they can’t replace the entire process.

The bottom line: Your executive summary can make or break your project

Communication is the backbone of good project management, and a well-crafted executive summary is a great way to engage, align, and drive outputs from senior stakeholders. But many people get executive summaries wrong, failing to make them clear and actionable by adding too much detail, following a poor structure, and not including a clear call to action.

A well-crafted executive summary engages, aligns, and drives outputs from senior stakeholders.

When writing your own executive summaries, remember to keep them to a maximum of 15 sentences, with sections for project context, status updates, problem definitions, solutions, and recommendations.

Project management tools, such as Planio, are great at helping build project reports that form the basis of your executive summary. With all your tasks, risks, issues, and documents stored in one place, Planio can automatically generate the perfect project reports packed full of the information you and your stakeholders need to push your project forward.

Try Planio with your own team — free for 30 days (no credit card required!)