7 tips for crafting a dominant proposal summary

The executive summary is often a critical element of a successful proposal, columnist Bob Lohfeld writes.

Not all requests for proposals call for an executive summary, and when proposals must have limited pages, it might be best to skip an executive summary. 

But for large proposals or RFPs that ask for an executive summary, here are seven steps to creating an effective one.

1. Decide when to write.
I’m in the camp that believes later is better. An executive summary is a summary of your proposal, and if you haven’t written the proposal, it is hard to write an effective summary. If you decide to write your executive summary early to give guidance to your proposal team about your approach and major strengths, plan to write twice.

2. Stay focused.
An effective executive summary provides an overview of your proposal and highlights the features that will be scored as strengths in the evaluation. Clearly tie the features of your approach to the benefits the client will receive. An executive summary is about what you propose to do and how you are going to do it. Writing about how great your company is what you do in sales brochures, not in executive summaries.

3. Follow your proposal.
Your executive summary is a digest of your proposal, without all the details. If written correctly, it gives a good overview of your approach, experience and value. The structure of your executive summary should follow the structure of your proposal. Assuming you organized your proposal in accordance with the proposal instructions found in Section L for federal RFPs, your executive summary should follow the same outline, unless there are other instructions in the RFP.

4. How to start your executive summary.
Every executive summary should have an opening statement. This is your vision statement that tells the government what you are going to achieve and how you'll deals with its issues/motivators. Think of it as your campaign promise — if you are elected, this is what you are going to accomplish. If the evaluators buy your vision, they are likely to score your proposal favorably. But if you open your executive summary by telling them how great your company is — ignoring the buyer’s mission — you will probably lose the evaluator’s interest.

5. Content is king.
Each section should provide an overview of a piece of your proposal and highlight the features you believe will be scored as strengths. Your executive summary tells readers all the features of your proposal that they would discover if they read the entire proposal. The strengths in each section of the executive summary should come directly from the body of your proposal and can be pulled from feature/benefit figures at the beginning of each proposal section or the introductory text that begins each section. This way, the executive summary pulls the proposal together and tells the evaluator what to look for in each section.

6. Final content check.
Ensure that you review the proposal evaluation criteria and include in your executive summary everything you want to say that relates to maximizing your point score. Everything in the executive summary must be fully explained in the body of the proposal. This is not the place to introduce last-minute ideas that you wish you had time to add to your proposal.

7. Write persuasively.
Now that you know how you are going to organize the executive summary and the content to be discussed, use the appropriate balance of good graphics and prose to convey your message convincingly.

If you structure your executive summary using these seven steps, it will be focused on the customer, be feature rich, and will help the evaluators maximize your proposal score.

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