Once upon a time, business people had hours upon hours of extra time heaped on top of each work day, and they spent their not-so-precious free time reading piles of business plans from cover to cover.
But not anymore. When you have the chance to get in front of potential investors, partners, or other audiences, there’s a limit on how much time and attention you’re realistically going to get. That’s why a concise and compelling executive summary is just as important as the entire rest of your business plan — it might be the only part that actually gets read.
In this post, we’ll hear from small business experts and cover how to use storytelling to craft an irresistible executive summary that entices your audience to read on.
We’ll be discussing this, and other topics, in our fireside chat, How to Create the Modern Business Plan for Your Startup, on Wednesday, June 15th. Don’t forget to RSVP!
What The Experts Had to Say
Your executive summary is, first and foremost, a summary of your business plan — it details the who, what, why, and how of getting your business off the ground and running. But the most effective executive summaries also tell the story of your business.
To find out what story you should aim to tell in your summary, we chatted with five small business experts. Here are their insights:
What story should an executive summary tell?
Eric Michael Sales, Eric Michael Sales Public Relations:
Executive summaries are the introduction to the entire plan, it’s everything as far as you’re concerned. It’s the make-or-break part of the pitch; just as the opening sentence of a story can make someone lose interest, so can a terrible executive summary.
Kurt Ostergaard, Stirling Insurance Services:
The customer should have a hero's journey from problem to life without a problem while using your solution.
Kyle Golding, The Golding Group:
What’s important in an executive summary is defining the purpose of the company. Elaborate on what problem you will solve and what value you will provide for your clients. Explain what’s unique about your product/service, operations, philosophy, etc. that makes this company different. Define who you are, what you do, and how you will go about doing it.
Matt Wilhelmi, Individual Advantages:
The story an executive summary should tell is the brief background of the business and its founders, the size of the problem in the market, and the solution the business will provide. It’s a vital part of the business plan because it’s usually the only thing read.
Daniel Feiman, Build It Backwards:
The executive summary is much more important for external presentations than internal. It’s the 1 page marketing piece that hooks the potential investor or senior manager to want to dig deeper into the firm.
Make Your Executive Summary Tell a Story
Now that we know what your summary should be about, it’s time to figure out how to actually write a story.
A traditional executive summary covers the basics of the business, but in today’s time-starved world, its chief purpose is to hook the audience and convince them that your business is worth learning more about.
Storytelling is a powerful way to get your message across because human brains are better at remembering stories (just like our own memories) than specific data points or attributes. With an executive summary that tells a story, you can tap into emotional and sensory parts of the brain that are neglected by logical, numbers-based information.
The story you tell can be anything you want it to be — the inspiration for your passion and vision for the business, the customer’s journey through life before and after your product — the sky’s the limit. And you don’t need to be a Hemingway or hire a professional writer in order to weave an alluring story into your executive summary.
Once you decide what story you’ll tell, follow these storytelling tips to sculpt a compelling story out of the bedrock of your business plan.
OPEN THE CURIOSITY GAP
Nothing keeps people reading, watching, or paying attention quite like curiosity — the desire to know more. One surefire way to incite curiosity in your audience is to ask questions, especially provocative questions.
A good example is what we traditionally call ‘click bait’ (hey, it works). Using provocative questions that set wheels in motion for your audience will coax them into listening.
MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO ROOT FOR YOU
A piece of paper is rarely enough to get buy-in from investors, partners, or anyone really. You need your audience to envision the person behind the business — you. Beyond showing your passion and bringing your vision to life, it’s important to be authentically human.
You want readers to see you as knowledgeable and competent. You also want them to want to root for you — not because their money is at stake, but because you’re a relatable character. Be careful not to over-pitch yourself, and remember that we all love a good underdog story.
It may seem counterintuitive, but stories aren’t really about events or outcomes. Good stories are all about feelings — particularly those that are shared with the audience. Instead of focusing on the circumstances of the story, emphasize how they feel. What do they look like? Sound like? Do they have a scent?
Colorful and sensory language really comes in handy here, and you should also wield descriptive metaphors and allusions. If your business is selling sunscreen, you can emphasize how the brilliant sun beat down on her skin, turning it an angry red, producing a slimy, suffocating sheen of sweat and a haze like a mirage above the sapphire blue water. Clearly this person is in dire need of some sunblock, am I right?
Do's and Don'ts
- DO use language that appeals to the senses — Detail how people in the story feel, what they smell, the sights they see, etc.
- DO start in the middle, where the excitement happens — Providing too much background info before getting to the crux of the story can quickly put your audience to sleep.
- DO make it relatable — Stories are most effective when they appeal to situations or emotions that the audience is familiar with.
- DON’T tell a story that isn’t reasonably related to your business — A good story is always entertaining, but if your audience spends the whole time trying to figure out why you’re telling it, it’s probably not going to accomplish what you want it to.
- DON’T exit the story arc and go off on tangents — Details are important and can help bring your story to life, but include too many and you can easily get off track and lose your audience.
- DON’T make it boring — This seems obvious but avoid bland, one dimensional storytelling. Colorful language and dynamic organization can make even a story about brushing your teeth into a nail-biting, edge of your seat thriller.
Go Get Your Happily Ever After
At the end of the day, an enchanting executive summary will buy you valuable bandwidth from any audience you’re looking to score face-time with. That’s why it’s worth the effort to slow down and craft a compelling story around your idea, your business, and yourself in today’s no nonsense, fast-paced business world. Your future entrepreneur self will thank you.