As a council staff member, you know a lot about your subject matter. However, most of the time people only want the summary! That means you need to be able to quickly zero in on the main points.
We all need to summarise complex information
Sharing information in a way that is easy to understand is something that all council staff need to be able to do. I really admire those who can think on their feet, providing succinct responses to unexpected questions around the council table or across the counter.
At least when we write, we have time to revise and simplify our first version. Here are some resources you can use to help you to quickly get to the point in your emails, submission summaries and executive summaries. This will give your documents their best chance of being read, understood and acted upon.
Emails can be a major interruption to someone’s concentration, so it pays to make them as simple as possible. In general, an email should be about one topic only, and written in a way that is easy to respond to (preferably with a yes/no answer).
Don’t include too many sentences in one paragraph – the ‘white space’ created by paragraph spacing makes for easier online reading.
An engaging subject line can encourage people to open your emails. For example, don’t call your email something bland like ‘meeting notes’ if there is an action within those notes that the reader will need to take.
Helen Bradford, of Capire, has developed some useful guidance on writing clear, effective emails – https://capire.co.nz/resources/how-to-write-clear-emails/
When writing a summary of submissions your role is to make submitters’ messages shorter and more digestible for the decision makers.
Aim to connect the submitters’ comments to the relevant aspect of the proposal or plan – focusing on what the submitters support or want to see changed, and their reasons.
Your summary then becomes the basis for an even more concise overview in your report, along the lines of “The majority of the submissions (20) supported … (and add any commonly expressed view). However, one third (10) of the submitters were opposed to this proposal, and their main concerns were …”
More guidance on summarising and reporting on submissions is available here – https://www.writingforcouncils.co.nz/guide-submission-summaries/
It can be tough to turn around and write an executive summary after completing a large document. You have to step away from the details and highlight the key content in a fresh way that doesn’t repeat the original content.
The first question to consider is the size of your executive summary.
How long should it be? Executive summaries should be between 5% and 10% of the length of the main document. That means the executive summary of a 50-page document should be from 2.5 to 5 pages long.
What should it include? Too often, large portions of text are copied and pasted into the executive summary – with many of those words replicated in the introduction that follows. This makes for a dull start to your work. It’s much better to rewrite your message in a different way, where possible.
Who is your executive summary for? In most cases, the ideal reader of your executive summary is likely to be your council’s senior management team and elected members. And given all the other reading they have to do, they are likely to appreciate a short, informative summary that helps them to navigate the complete document.
How to get started? More than any other document, I find myself dancing around the prospect of writing an executive summary, rather than jumping in and getting a draft on the page. The only thing that helps me not to procrastinate is to follow my nine-step process for writing executive summaries. It settles my nerves by allowing me to focus on one step at a time.
The first step is to think about the document from the point of view of your senior management team and elected members (and any other future readers of your document). What do they most need to know about it?
Then I copy over the information of potential value into a ‘raw text document’, and group the paragraphs under topic headings. This provides the basis for thinking about the document as a whole and then writing about it in a new way.
Revised guide to writing executive summaries
In my first version of the guide to writing executive summaries (in 2017) I divided up the nine tasks into a three-day process – as this gives the writer time to mull on the content, to reflect on what’s most important, and to come up with original, refreshing ways to express that information.
This guide has stood the test of time – I return to it every time I need to create an executive summary, and it always helps me to get underway.
However, the reality is I NEVER write an executive summary over three days – once I get started, I like to get the whole thing sorted as soon as possible. I suspect you don’t have the luxury of spreading your executive summary over three days either, so here’s a link to my updated, simplified version of the guide – how to write an executive summary.