In 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote the following to his First Lord of the Admiralty:
“Pray state this day, on one side of a sheet of paper, how the Royal Navy is being adapted to meet the conditions of modern warfare.”
Some call it the “Executive Summary.” Less formal people might call it “the Reader’s Digest version.”
What you call it doesn’t really matter. You may have mastered the intricate details of a project or considered all the nuanced variations of a proposal. But your boss or the Budget Committee or a potential funding source usually won’t want to go into the details until you’ve given them a quick overview of what you want to do.
The Important Questions
Your challenge is to answer the important questions. But how do you know what they are, especially if the person who’ll be judging your idea is someone you don’t know?
You can draw on research done by Dr. William Miller when he was at SRI International. He identified a limited number of questions that cover the range of important issues for most people One of them is probably the hot button for anyone you’re pitching to.
I’ve modified his findings slightly to make them more usable for my clients. Here are five questions you should answer briefly in your summary.
What’s the goal?
There are many different terms for this. You’ll hear “end state” and “objective” and “reason” and “purpose” and many others. Just describe how the world will be different when everything is done. This is also the place for a quick statement of benefits.
Who will be involved?
Explain briefly who will be affected by what you propose. Describe who will need to be part of the project.
What’s the process?
Lay out the first step and succeeding steps that will get you from start to finish. Save the detailed timelines for the body of your proposal.
What resources will we need?
People, time, money, equipment, and authority are all resources. Just hit the high points in your summary. The details can come later.
Outline the most interesting or fascinating or novel thing about your proposal. This also the place for a brief mention of any benefits that are byproducts of your idea.
Orally and in Writing
This kind of brief summary is longer than an elevator speech, but way shorter than the whole proposal. If you need to deliver it orally, limit yourself to about 300 words. That will take about two minutes of speaking time.
Your written version should follow Sir Winston’s guideline: one side of a sheet of paper. Have one paragraph of three sentences max for each question. Add an introduction that covers the main benefit and a close that includes a call to action.