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The Two Types of White Paper Executive Summary

by | Mar 15, 2016 | B2B Copywriting, Collateral, White Papers, Content Marketing | 0 comments

There’s a long-running debate in the content marketing community on the wisdom of using an executive summary at the beginning of a white paper.

The Two Types of Executive Summary and When to Use EachSome say an executive summary is essential. Busy executives, they claim, are unlikely to invest their limited reading time in a white paper without some assurance that they’ll find answers to their important business questions.

Others think an executive summary has the opposite effect. This side says an executive summary creates disincentives to read the full white paper: it adds unnecessary length and gives away too much information about the solution. These opponents argue a white paper should begin with a brief introduction rather than an executive summary.

I say the issue is overblown.

It’s a non-issue, really. The controversy, I believe, stems from a misunderstanding between the two camps of what each of them means when they say, “executive summary.”

That’s because there are really two types of executive summary – or “introduction,” if you prefer – that can help increase the readership and improve the impact of your white papers. But neither one is right for every white paper. Each works better than the other in specific situations.

We’ll examine the two types – and when you should use each – in a moment. But first, let’s define what we mean by they term “executive summary” and look at why you should use one.

What is an executive summary?

An executive summary, or management summary as its sometimes called, is a single page (or less) summary of the content of your white paper.

A good executive summary will usually start by indicating the audience for which the white paper is intended – by industry and usually by job responsibility – and the business problem to be addressed. It will typically conclude by promising the reader useful, problem-solving information on a new and better way to solve the subject business problem.

Why use an executive summary?

An executive summary is so named, because its purpose is to allow time-pressed executive readers to become rapidly familiar with the content of your white paper without having to read it all.

Corporate decision makers desperately need solid information to solve their business problems and make the right buying decisions. But they’re extremely busy. They don’t have nearly enough time to read everything that comes across their desks. There’s simply too much. They need to make quick, smart decisions on how to most effectively use their valuable and very limited reading time.

That’s why using an executive summary is a smart idea.

An executive summary makes it easy for busy decision makers to determine if your white paper contains the answers they need – answers to their pressing business questions. It supports a quick decision on whether to read your white paper, pass it down the chain of command, or toss it in the recycling bin. If those decision makers can’t quickly find the answers they need, they’ll most likely trash your white paper without reading it.

But besides helping the reader, an executive summary also benefits you, the marketer.

As mentioned, some marketers fear the presence of an executive summary will create a disincentive for readers, make them overconfident they already have the answers they need, and thus dissuade them from reading further.

In reality, the opposite is true.

If your executive summary is well written – if it is succinct and to the point and answers the reader’s basic business questions – it will provide an incentive to read further. If your reader is indeed a prospect for your product or service – if he or she has a strong desire to solve the problem addressed in your white paper – a well-written executive summary will most likely pique his or her interest and create desire to read your white paper and gain more detailed information.

Also bear in mind that your executive summary is the first page of your white paper that your reader will encounter. If it’s well written, it will likely be read in its entirety and give your prospect a positive first impression. And a positive first impression greatly increases the chances your white paper will create a positive and lasting overall impression.

The Two Types of Executive Summary

As I mentioned earlier, there are basically two types of executive summary that work well for white papers. Each is effective, but in different circumstances. The two types are the Preview and the Synopsis.

The Preview

The Preview executive summary is kind of like a movie trailer. It tries to whet one’s appetite – get the audience excited by revealing the conflict and suspense in the story – without giving away the ending.

As such, the Preview is very problem-oriented. By that I mean that this type of executive summary dwells more on the problem than on the solution. It will promise a solution at the end, but like the movie trailer, it doesn’t want to give away the ending. It’s purpose is to get the target audience to read the white paper, so they’ll gain a better understanding of the problem and be better able to appreciate your new and better solution.

Preview executive summaries are typically structured as follows:

  • Market Conditions. The conditions that brought about the problem. The situation the target reader finds himself in today as related to the problem being addressed.
  • Problem Assessment. A summary of the problem or problems that need to be resolved, what is preventing them from being resolved, and why existing solutions are failing.
  • Ramifications and Repercussions. A brief summary of the costs associated with the problem: the costs of persisting with outdated solutions or failing to address the problem.
  • Promise of a Better Solution. A brief, final paragraph that offers the reader hope in the form of an emerging solution that will truly resolve the problem.

The Synopsis

If the Preview is like a movie trailer, the Synopsis executive summary is, as the name implies, more like a plot synopsis or movie review, the type you see prefaced with the phrase ***SPOILER ALERT!*** on and The Synopsis summary strikes a more even balance between problem and solution, compared to the more problem-oriented Preview style.

The Synopsis is the type of executive summary some marketers shy away from. They’re afraid if they “give away the ending,” their prospects won’t read their white paper. But there are some situations where the Synopsis works better, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The Synopsis executive summary takes the following form, similar to that of a case study:

  • The Situation. Summarizes what is causing the problem. This is like the Market Conditions portion in the Preview style, but usually more concise.
  • The Problem. Highlights the primary business and/or technical challenges related to the Situation and addresses the inadequacy of existing solutions. Briefer than the Problem portion in the Preview style it leaves more room for the remaining points.
  • The Solution. States the recommended solution in one of two ways, either generically or by the use of a brand name. This portion is usually very brief and segues directly into the Results.
  • The Results. Highlight what’s to be gained by implementing the new solution in terms of business benefits: reduced costs, better allocation of resources, labor savings, faster time to market, etc.

When to Use Each Type of Executive Summary

As mentioned earlier, each of the two types of executive summary is superior to the other in different circumstances. And luckily, the difference in those circumstances is pretty clear cut.

In fact, they correspond to the difference between the two styles.

When to use the Preview

The Preview style, as you’ll recall, is the more problem-oriented of the two executive summary styles. That makes the Preview style better suited to white papers targeting prospects early in the sales cycle.

Early in the sales cycle, in what some may call the pre-sales or educational portion of the cycle, prospects aren’t ready to hone in on specific solutions. They’re more interested on learning more about the nature of the problem they face – which they may not yet fully grasp – and the range of possible solutions available.

Classic problem/solution white papers and numbered list white papers tend to work best in this educational phase of the cycle, because they place emphasis on the problem to be solved, and offer more product-agnostic problem-solving information. The Preview exec summary works well for these types of white papers, because it gets prospects’ heads nodding, “Yes, this is the problem I have, I need to find out more about it.”

When to use the Synopsis

Later in the sales cycle, when prospects fully understand their problem and are evaluating specific solutions, the Synopsis style makes the better choice.

In the evaluation phase of the sales cycle, prospects are more interested in specific product details and the results they bring. Product backgrounder white papers focus on this type of information, and the Synopsis executive summary lets executive readers know right up front that’s the kind of information they’re going to find in the white paper.

Take-away Points

  1. An executive summary is a single-page summary of a white paper’s contents designed to aid busy executives in making a decision on whether or not to read your white paper.
  2. Starting your white paper with an executive summary provides the following benefits:
    • Supports a quick time-investment decision by the reader.
    • Creates a positive first impression of your white paper.
    • Gives prospects an incentive to read further.
  3. There are basically two types of executive summary:
    • The Preview
    • The Synopsis
  4. The Preview executive summary is problem-oriented and best suited to:
    • Problem/solution and numbered list white papers
    • The early (educational) phases of the sales cycle
  5. The Synopsis executive summary is more results-oriented and better suited to:
    • Backgrounder white papers
    • The later (solution evaluation) phases of the sales cycle

Next Steps…

Need some help putting together a new white paper that executives will really read? Call CopyEngineer at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or drop me an email at

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