How to Write a Proposal Executive Summary That Sells, Not Summarizes
(Example + Template Included)

Cheyanne Lobo

Proposal writers often craft an executive summary like an overview of their solution—but it should be so much more than that.

Like movie trailers entice viewers to watch a film, executive summaries should entice clients to read the proposal. It’s your one-and-only first impression to hook busy decision-makers, which should be used to sell them on this deal—not just summarize. 🤝

Read on to learn how to write an effective executive summary that truly sells, complete with a free executive summary template.

What Is an Executive Summary?

An executive summary is a concise and strategically crafted document that typically comes after your RFP cover letter (a.k.a. your formal introduction). Its job is to create a compelling preview for the rest of your proposal by showing the client what life will look like after they implement your solution.

This single-page document should:

  • Highlight essential information: Distill the most important information from the proposal, including the pain point, solution, and expected outcome.
  • Engage the evaluator: Serve as a hook that grabs the evaluator’s attention and excites them to read the rest of the proposal.
  • Demonstrate value: Weave in strong win themes that set your company apart from the competition.
  • Facilitate decision-making: Make a quick case for approval by providing a high-level overview of how you’ll meet the client’s needs.

5 Steps to Write a Proposal Executive Summary

So now you know what this document is for. But how can you write an executive summary that stands out above the competition?

At a baseline, your summary should be 500-1000 words (or 1-2 pages) and should include:

  • An attention-grabbing opening
  • A clear summary of client pain points — and how your solution helps
  • Brief details on what makes your company different
  • What makes your solution right for the client

Within this limited space, it’s critical that your executive summary format provides a clear overview of the project proposal key points, introduces your win themes, and tailors the solution to your prospect’s needs.

Here are five steps to write a compelling executive summary.

Step 1: Write the First Draft of Your Full Proposal

Writing your executive summary before you know the narrative of your proposal can be a recipe for wasted time.

Without all the information, you’ll likely need to revise your executive summary multiple times as you refine your positioning and details. That’s why it’s important to complete the essential proposal writing steps before beginning the summary.

Then, once your draft proposal is complete, you’ll be ready to start writing the executive summary (and without as many revisions).

Step 2: Focus on an Attention-Grabbing Opening

The first few lines of your executive summary serve as the hook, grabbing your reader’s attention and enticing them to continue engaging with the proposal. The opener must shine to stand out from the hefty pile of proposals on your evaluator’s desk. ⭐

To do that, center your opening around the prospect by jumping right into their problem and how you can help them solve it.

For example, say you’re responding to an RFP from a tech company that needs a research firm to help them gain insight into their customers. Your opener could capture their main desire, such as,“You want to know your customers inside out so you can make informed decisions in your marketing and product development.”

We recommend spending more time on the opening line, than you do on any other section of the executive summary. After all, if the first line does not hook them, you may risk them not reading the second. 🙅🏻‍♀️

Executive Summary Template: Use This Opening Line ✂️

If you’re feeling stuck on how to start the first line of your proposal, try one of these templates out for size and adjust it to suit your needs.
Example: [Goal your prospect wants to achieve] is [term to capture the struggle, e.g. “nearly impossible”] when [reason why it’s so hard].
You want [main thing your prospect wants] so you can [deeper benefit/impact of achieving that desire].

Step 3: Agitate the Client’s Top Pain Point (A.K.A. Their Hot Button Issue)

With the scene set by your opening, you can now bring attention to your prospect’s biggest challenge.

While ‘agitation’ may sound counterintuitive (since you want to stay on the prospect’s good side 😅), this is an effective persuasive writing technique. Writers use this approach to show the client you truly understand their struggle—then smooth it over by explaining how your company can help.

How can you apply this technique? Use the copywriting framework P-A-S, which stands for pain, agitate, solution:

P – Pain: Identify the overarching problem or struggle your prospect is dealing with.

A – Agitate: Show that you understand what they’re experiencing by digging deeper into that struggle and how it plays out in their life or business. If it works for your proposal, you can include references to research or your company’s expertise that support your message. For instance, noteworthy stats demonstrate how pervasive their pain point is.

S – Solution: Present your offer as the best solution to help them overcome that pain.

Continuing with the research firm example above, you could agitate pain points like confusion around customer segments and how poor data quality impacts their bottom line.

Executive Summary Example: How to Emphasize Paint Points

Pain point: Lack of customer data

How to agitate the pain: “Without reliable customer data, go-to-market teams will be left guessing what customers want. Providing qualitative solutions may work in the interim, but it’s not scalable. And worse still: It’s not reliable, which can have detrimental impacts on your bottom line.”

Step 4: Clearly Describe the Solution (and Expected Outcome)

Once your prospect feels seen and heard, you can provide a high-level description of how your company will alleviate their problem.

Reminder: Because your executive summary is just 1-2 pages, this should provide a big-picture overview, not an in-depth analysis. The details of your solution will come later in the proposal. Instead, give the evaluator a glimpse of what they can look forward to, if they keep reading. 👀

To make this section more compelling, here’s some key tips to personalize the solution to your prospect:

  • Refer to the company by name
  • Reference the company’s specific branches, business model, and/or product lines
  • Highlight financial projections and other key metrics they can expect by implementing your solution
  • Speak directly to them by using language they’re familiar with (by picking up on what they use in their industry)

In other words, make the client feel like you’ve created a solution that is personalized and tailored to their needs.

Step 5: Outline the Unique Qualifications of Your Company

Once you’ve shown how your solution benefits the client, it’s time to drive home what makes you different (and stronger 💪) from your competition.

When writing this section of the executive summary, ask yourself: Why should they choose our company?

Focus on the capabilities that are most appealing to them, but you can also include quick references to more general differentiators. Wrap it all up into a few short and sweet bullets that clarify why you should be at the top of their list.

Executive Summary Examples: Outline Your Qualifications

Be sure to include:

  • Your company’s objectives & business trajectory in the next five years
  • How your brand values align with the prospect’s own company values
  • Noteworthy achievements or awards
  • Your competitive differentiators

3 Things to Avoid in Your Proposal Executive Summary

Now that you know what you should include in your proposal executive summary, it’s time to cover what you should avoid. Here are some tips on what to eliminate from your draft.

Avoid Cliché Language

Since the primary goal of your executive summary is to have the evaluator shortlist your proposal, you want to avoid phrases that they’ll see in every other RFP response.

Jargon and over-complicated language are considered common mistakes in proposal writing. Cliché phrasing or technical terms can water down an otherwise powerful executive summary or proposal, and worse still, risk losing your target audience entirely.

For example: if you work in SaaS or technology, avoid overused terms like “best in class” or “optimized solutions.” Instead, find personalized, specific ways of describing your offers.

Avoid Rambling On and On and On…

The key to a well-written executive summary is being persuasive while keeping things short. Do whatever you can to stick to one page and keep your paragraphs concise for easy consumption.

The most common cause of text that’s too long? When proposal writers try to stuff all of the company’s features into the executive summary. Remember that the rest of your proposal is for the details—keep your executive summary focused on the most essential points for hooking your evaluator.

Avoid Spelling and Grammatical Mistakes

We’ve all used the wrong “to,” “too,” or “two” before. 😅 But the wrong typo in the wrong place can be a big distraction. And at worst, it can impact the perception of your company.

Proofreading is vital for every part of your proposal, but mistakes are particularly noticeable in your executive summary. After all, it’s one of the first pages the evaluator reads. So don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

See it in Action: Proposal Executive Summary Template & Example ⬇️

Looking for some inspiration? Check out this handy executive summary template and example to instantly hook your clients.

Comparing Components: Here’s What Your Executive Summary is Not

Executive summaries can get confused for cover letters, mission statements, and business plans. So in this section, you’ll learn the difference between these common confusions (and how to avoid these pitfalls yourself).

Proposal Executive Summary vs. Cover Letters

Most executive summaries and proposal cover letters are similar in that they’re both meant to prime the evaluator and get them excited to dive into the rest of your proposal. That said, there are a few key differences in their function.

Executive Summary Cover Letter
  • Provides a persuasive overview of your solution
  • Strong focus on driving home win themes
  • Not written from the perspective of one senior member; it’s coming from your company “as a whole”
  • Acts as a personalized greeting and quick introduction to your proposal
  • Often signed by a senior member of your team and may directly address a specific person on your prospect’s team

Referring to cover letters, proposal pro Jon Williams said:

Thank the customer, show enthusiasm, demonstrate senior sponsorship, briefly introduce win themes–and then shut up and leave the rest to a brilliant exec summary!
Jon Williams
Managing Director
Strategic Proposals

Executive Summary vs. Mission Statement

While an executive summary and a mission statement can capture your company’s purpose, some key differences exist. A mission statement is more broad strokes, and an executive summary contains more tangible details.

Executive Summary Mission Statement
  • May include or reference your mission statement, but it goes beyond that to articulate why your solution is right for your prospect
  • More detailed and specific about your solution
  • Brief message (usually one to three sentences) that captures the purpose of your company
  • Meant to inform all aspects of your brand, from your core values and your offers to your hiring practices
  • Much more high-level about your company’s impact

Executive Summary in a Proposal vs. Business Plan

Executive summaries in proposals and business plans are designed to prepare the reader for the following document, but their content and purpose differ. An executive summary serves an executive audience.

Proposal Executive Summary Business Plan Executive Summary
  • All about persuading the reader to take an action, such as hiring your company or buying your product
  • Focuses on why your solution is the best fit for your prospect
  • All about convincing stakeholders to partner with or invest in a company
  • Summarizes the business and products as a whole, along with aspects like target markets, go-to-market plans, sales strategies, and financial projections.

Executive Summary vs. Company Description

A company description or company summary is exactly what it sounds like—an overview of your organization. You’ll typically have a company description in your proposal, but your executive summary isn’t the place for it. Each components serves a different purpose.

Executive Summary Company Description
  • More persuasive and focused on your prospect’s desired outcomes vs. details about your company
  • Shows the prospect what to expect from your proposal—and how they’ll benefit from working with your company
  • Explains your company’s history, products & services, place in the market, and general features
  • Typically more straight-forward with less emphasis on being persuasive

FAQs: The Most-Asked Questions About Writing Your Own Executive Summary