Your personal guide to writing a winning executive summary

Your executive summary is the most important part your RFP response. That’s right, it’s not the technical sections or competitor differentiators. It’s the executive summary.

Think about it. Your executive summary is the first company info anyone reads after they skim the cover letter—and it might be the last. It’s like the book cover of your RFP, and like a book, it will be judged.

Recently the RFPIO team checked out APMP’s on-demand webinar, Making it Count: The Effective Executive Summary. It was an eye-opening presentation by Dick Eassom, Vice President at SM&A and past APMP CEO, which made us rethink our own strategy with RFP response.

Today we’re going to share a few takeaways from the APMP webinar. Whether you’ve been around RFP response for a while—or you’re just taking the proposal reins at your organization—this is a rundown on what you need to know about executive summaries to win more opportunities.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary is a short section that gives a quick overview of important information. In the context of an RFP, an executive summary addresses the prospect’s problem, the prospect’s desired business outcomes, and the vendor’s recommendation for solving the problem and achieving the outcome.

The executive summary is designed to help a prospect decide whether or not to move forward with the proposal—and so it’s critical you get it right.

Why spend time writing an executive summary?

To pull together an RFP response, we know it takes a grand effort by any sized team. The turnaround for RFPs is typically a quick one, so it’s common for businesses to cut corners to save time…especially when that deadline is Friday and you can’t bear to work another weekend.

Dick Eassom shared a great analogy in the APMP webinar that can help us relate to the importance of the executive summary in our RFPs. He said this:

“If you’re buying something, like a service for your house, you’re not necessarily going to pick by price. You’re going to pick the contractor that has the lowest risk—that will get the job done well and on time.”

The executive summary is an opportunity to show our organization in the best light, to demonstrate that we understand our customer’s problems and that we can solve them. It is also a way to highlight how we are better than our competitors, which is not normally something we would discuss in public or social media.

good executive summary

To summarize an executive summary, it’s our offer to the decision makers. The best executive summaries get to the point without the fluff, while speaking effectively to the buyer’s needs.

Which team members write the executive summary?

There is a “should” and a “will” when it comes to RFP response management. Meaning, there are certain team members who should handle the executive summary, but the reality is that the proposal manager will probably end up leading it.

Ideally business development and sales teams should own the executive summary and be supported by SMEs, proposal teams, and senior executives. Due to the hectic schedules of sales—and the deprioritization of RFPs—this task will often be pushed off until the last minute or skipped altogether.

executive summary tips
Fortunately, all is not lost if you are the spirited proposal manager that ends up taking ownership of the executive summary. If you manage your proposals with an RFP software solution, you can easily assign the sections to your team in the order you need them completed.

rfp review process
Your process for the RFP executive summary will look similar to other sections of your RFP response:

  1. Proposal Manager – provides project clarification and involves necessary team members
  2. Sales/Business Development – writes the first draft after understanding the project needs
  3. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) – offers expertise and adds value to the response
  4. Marketing – polishes content and ensures messaging is aligned with the organization
  5. Senior Executives – gives final review and sign off

When is the best time to write the executive summary?

Commonly the executive summary falls victim to the rushed deadline that comes into play with RFP response. Many organizations will put off the summary until the very end, either because they prioritized other sections or it slipped through the cracks when nobody took ownership.

However, in the APMP webinar, Dick Eassom had a different timing strategy for completing the executive summary. It shouldn’t be the last thing you’re writing, it should be the first—right after you have developed a win strategy as a team.

request for proposal content

The biggest issue with tacking on the executive summary long after completing the other RFP sections is that you will lose a lot of the impact. An executive summary should be the guiding light for your proposal that shapes other sections in your RFP response—not the other way around.

It deserves time and attention, rather than being an afterthought. By prioritizing the executive summary in your process, you’ll build a foundation than anchors the rest of your RFP and makes it stronger.

How long should an executive summary be?

Summary is the key word here. The executive summary needs to be concise and engaging, something that resonates with your audience without being lengthy or repetitive. This is another reason why rushing this part of your RFP response just won’t do.

How do you write a winning executive summary?

You’re trying to win the hearts of your prospects to win a new business. They will notice when something is thrown together, and they will walk away. Spend time developing a win strategy to align your team, then you can define a win theme that answers the question they’re really asking: What’s in it for me?

win themes rfps

Here are some important things to keep in mind to optimize your executive summary:

  • Be relevant to your audience: Personalized messaging is more impactful than a boilerplate version you reuse with every RFP.
  • Know your differentiators: Specify benefits that are appealing to that company alone, versus a features checklist that can be found on your website.
  • Back up your claims: Answer the “so what?” with data that proves the benefits, and skip blanket statements and fabricated metrics that will discredit you.
  • Use simple language: Speak with a clear, relatable tone in your responses that is free from overused jargon or techy lingo that nobody understands.
  • Follow instructions: Give only what is asked of you—no more, no less—to show that you cared enough to listen, and that you’ll be a better long-term partner because of that.

The executive summary has many moving parts. With improved team collaboration, you have the power to rise above the inefficiencies at your company. As with any RFP response, having a solid process in place will save your team time and help you create a higher quality response with more winning potential.

Hit the pause button and rethink your executive summary approach as something that deserves to be prioritized. Try completing it first and see if treating it as the guiding light makes your entire RFP more effective.

Pssst…here’s an RFP executive summary example to help you land your next deal.

How to write executive summary


As the Co-Founder and Content Strategist at Superneat Marketing, Britt strives to inspire RFP responders with content and resources that support their cause.

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