The problem? The executive summary slide is the first impression of your deck and the only place that the reader can get a complete overview of your argument.
Therefore, executive summary slides shouldn’t be an afterthought. In fact, it’s important to spend significant time writing a strong executive summary that clearly articulates your argument and inspires your reader to act.
What is an executive summary slide?
An executive summary is a written overview of the main points or arguments of a larger document, memo or other report.
Strategy consultants also write executive summaries for their presentations or slide decks.
An executive summary slide is the first slide in your presentation that fully summarizes the argument, storyline, and supporting evidence of the body slides.
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Why do you need executive summary slides?
As a reader, it’s so easy to get lost in a PowerPoint slide deck. You need to keep previous slides and messages in your mind, follow the line of argument, and somehow put everything together into a coherent story that you can make sense of.
Executive summary slides help the reader “follow along” with your slide deck. There are a few main benefits:
- Executive summaries provide context to help the reader understand why the topic of the slide deck is important.
- Executive summaries communicate the high-level argument before the reader gets into the body of the slide deck. This helps the reader understand your more detailed body slides.
- Executive summaries are a “map” that the reader can reference back to if they start losing the line of argument in the body of the deck.
How to write executive summary slides
To understand the best practices of writing executive summary slides, we’re going to break down a BCG executive summary.
In doing so, we’re going to learn the simple framework for writing executive summary slides that is used by strategy consultants, such as McKinsey & Co, Bain, and BCG.
Below you can see an example of a BCG executive summary. This slide deck is a BCG report on “Melbourne as a Global Cultural Destination” and can be downloaded here.
Here are the two main executive summary slides:
These BCG executive summary slides are a great example of an executive summary done well. So we’ll use them to describe best practices.
Best practice #1: Bold text for summary sentences, bullet points for supporting data
One of the first things you’ll notice about the BCG executive summary is the bold-bullet structure.
The bold sentences denote key statements or claims, and the bullet points support those statements (usually with data).
If there was no evidence to support their claims — or if the evidence was buried deep in the slide deck — then the reader could quite easily doubt the validity of the claim, and ultimately the end conclusion of the slide deck.
So one of the key aspects of strategy consulting slide decks is that no claim is made without evidence. And that includes the executive summary.
Let’s zoom in on one example:
The key statement in this part of the executive summary is “there are weaknesses in Melbourne’s cultural and creative offer”.
This claim is supported by a bunch of data points, such as 90% of agencies and thought leaders believe the cultural offer is not clearly articulated.
Use a bold-bullet structure in your executive summaries, where your claims are bolded and the supporting evidence is articulated in bullet points underneath.
Best practice #2: Bold summary sentences can be read alone to tell a story
Executives are busy people and many of them aren’t interested in diving into the supporting bullet points. They will simply read through your bolded summary sentences to understand the high-level argument and recommendations.
This means that your executive summary should be “skimmable by design”.
In other words, your bolded summary sentences should tell a complete and logical story without requiring the supporting data in the bullet points below.
Let’s read just the bolded sentences in our BCG executive summary:
Melbourne has a compelling creative and cultural offer; the city attracted >10m Australian and international visitors in 2015. Cultural visitors and creative industries drive significant economic benefits; cultural tourism projected to grow further.
However, Melbourne’s position as Australia’s cultural and creative capital is being challenged. On a global index of cultural and creative cities, Melbourne ranks first in Australia, third in Asia and 12th globally.
Melbourne has clear strengths to build on as a cultural and creative city. However, there are some weaknesses to address to further improve Melbourne’s cultural and creative offer.
These findings suggest five strategic priorities to improve Melbourne’s position as a global cultural and creative destination, which may lift Melbourne’s position on the Performance Index.
It reads just like a narrative!
Despite ignoring all the bullet points, we can still fully understand the argument that BCG is making in their executive summary (which is also reflected in the body of the slide deck).
Ensure that your bolded summary sentences can be read without supporting bullet points and still fully articulate the argument of your slide deck
Best practice #3: The executive summary should reflect the ‘SCR storyline’ structure of the slide deck
It’s not good enough to just “tell a story”, you need a tell the story using a particular structure.
The structure used by strategy consulting firms, such as McKinsey & Co, Bain, and BCG, is the ‘situation, complication, resolution’ structure.
As an aside, you can learn more about how to craft a compelling argument and SCR storyline for your slide deck in our Complete Guide To Building Strategy Presentations. If you haven’t read that guide, you should check it out.
Let’s take a look at how the SCR storyline applies to your slide deck:
- What baseline knowledge do people need to have before they understand our argument?
- How did this problem come about?
- What is the problem we need to solve?
- Why is this particular problem important to solve?
- How do we respond / solve the problem?
- What are the specific recommendations and/or next steps?
Your executive summary slide should communicate the complete storyline in your slide deck. And thus it should also follow the situation, complication, resolution structure.
In our BCG example, you can clearly see the SCR structure in action:
It’s important to set the context with the situation, as there’s no guarantee that all of you readers will have the background knowledge to understand your argument. It also gives you the opportunity to explain the causes of the problem that you’re addressing in the slide deck.
Then, in the complication section, you should succinctly define the problem and why it is important to solve. Some people suggest that you use a question format, for example “How can Melbourne improve its position as a global cultural and creative destination?”, although that’s really just a matter of style.
Finally, you need to clearly articulate your proposed resolution or “answer” to the problem. You’ll note that most of the executive summary real-estate is spent on the resolution component. From a reader’s perspective, the recommendations are the most important part of the slide deck.
Write your executive summary in a situation-complication-resolution structure to provide the right context for the reader and ensure your line of reasoning is easy to understand.
Executive summary slide examples
Below you’ll find examples of executive summary slides from consulting firms like Bain & Co, BCG, L.E.K. Consulting, Oliver Wyman, and others.
If you’d like to see more examples of strategy consulting slides, including executive summaries, check out the Slide Science slide library.