By Andy Kovacs
You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
– Will Rogers
Why is it called the “Executive Summary”?
As anyone who has ever written an audit report will tell you, it’s called the “Executive Summary” because this is the only section of the report the executives in your organisation will read … if you’re lucky!
Executive Summaries often lack the urgency, impact and ‘wow’ factor required to stop a busy executive from doing what they’re doing and read the report
This high-profile attention makes writing an Executive Summary a nerve-wracking experience for many auditors. Their boss’s bosses are reading it – so they don’t want to screw it up and make a bad first impression!
I believe this is the reason why a lot of the audit report Executive Summaries which we review here at ELC Consultants lack confidence.
What’s worse, they often lack the urgency, impact and ‘wow’ factor required to stop a busy executive from doing what they’re doing and actually read the report.
There are a lot of articles about how the Executive Summary is the most important section of any audit report and how you mustn’t waste this opportunity to show your value to your stakeholders. Nevertheless, I see very few articles offering practical advice on how to write a great Executive Summary opening.
So here are some lessons from the best scriptwriters in Hollywood to offer some ideas on how to write openings to your Executive Summaries which will get your readers hooked and make them want to read on.
Before we get into that though, we need to understand the mindset of your executive readers. So here’s a philosophical thought experiment which will help to bring this into clearer perspective.
A Philosophical Thought Experiment
Think of your organisation’s CEO.
Now imagine that you are that CEO and that this is your first day back at work after a relaxing holiday.
When you arrive at your office, your Executive Assistant is anxiously waiting for you.
The Audit Committee meeting has been rescheduled.
You’ve got 5 minutes to get there!
Says your assistant, before helpfully handing you the print-outs of Executive Summaries from the audit missions which will be reviewed in the committee meeting.
You have no more than a couple of minutes to read these Executive Summaries. If those opening sentences are to be of any value to you – what do they need to clearly tell you?
Executive Summary Sentence One: “Why did you do this audit?”
Hopefully, this philosophical thought experiment makes your executive reader’s mindset clear. This is their day-to-day:
- They have no time
- They need clear, high-value information
- They need it now!
The first thing they need you to tell them is why you did this audit (and why it’s of value to their organisation). If you tell them this (in the opening sentence), they can go to the Audit Committee meeting and join the discussion.
If you don’t, then you’re of little practical use to them.
So how should you go about writing a high-value opening sentence which will give your busy executives exactly what they need?
Executive Summary Opening Sentences: Lessons from Hollywood’s Best!
When it comes to getting attention and hooking readers’ interest, Hollywood scriptwriters are the best in the world – because they need to be!
It’s not easy to sell a movie script to a major Hollywood studio.
Firstly, lots of people dream of writing the next blockbuster, so there’s a mountain of competition.
Secondly, it’s a high-stakes business. The average Hollywood movie costs $200 million to make and promote ($100 million in production costs and $100 million in marketing); it needs to gross $300 million (three times its production costs) to make money. When you consider that around 80% of films lose money, it’s not hard to understand why Hollywood Studio Producers are some of the most cynical and hard-to-persuade business people that you can find – anywhere!
So how do scriptwriters write scripts which are so good that they can jump the competition queue and get skeptical, battle-scarred Studio Producers to read them?
There is no chance at all that a Studio Producer will pick up their script and read it!
Just like a CEO who’s caught in a whirlwind of work after a holiday, Hollywood Studio Producers do not have the time to sit down and read a script.
So what scriptwriters do instead is write a logline for their script.
Loglines – the secret to selling $200 million movie scripts
A logline is a sentence typically containing between 5 to 25 words.
It explains the base concept of a movie and hooks Studio Producers’ interest (when it’s good!)
It doesn’t attempt to tell Studio Producers EVERYTHING about the movie, it just gives a snapshot and leaves them wanting more.
And if they do want more, guess what they have to do?
- Read the script!
Loglines do 3 things:
- They introduce the movie’s hero;
- They state the hero’s problem or objective;
- They identify the movie’s villain or the obstacle which is stopping the hero from solving their problem or achieving their objective.
Here are 5 actual loglines which were the very first step in selling 5 Hollywood blockbusters which you all know (and which went on to earn a combined total of $1,590 million at the box office):
The ageing patriarch of an organised crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
– The Godfather
A young FBI cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive help
on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.
– Silence of the Lambs
A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of reality and his role
in the war against its controllers.
– The Matrix
It’s “Jaws” on a spaceship.
It’s “Die Hard” on a bus.
So how can loglines help you to create Executive Summary opening sentences with urgency, impact and the ‘wow’ factor which will get your busy stakeholders to read them?
Introducing “Audit Rationale Loglines”
Ask yourself this: ‘if I had only sixty seconds on the stage,
what would I absolutely have to say to get my message across?’
– Jeff Dewar
An Audit Rationale Logline is the opening sentence of your Executive Summary.
It explains why you performed your audit, the value to your organisation and hooks your reader’s interest (when it’s good!).
It doesn’t attempt to tell your CEO EVERYTHING about the audit, it just gives a snapshot and leaves them wanting more.
And if they do want more, guess what they have to do?
- Read the audit report!
Audit Rationale Loglines do 3 things:
- They introduce the entity or process which you audited;
- They state the business objective of the entity or process which you audited;
- They identify the potential obstacle which, may stop the business objectives from being achieved.
Here are 3 adapted Audit Rationale Loglines from Audit Report Writing learning programmes which we’ve recently completed with our corporate clients:
The successful performance of our corporate sales channels significantly impacts on ACME Technology’s ability to acquire, serve and retain customers; if our sales channels are not cost effective and deliver poor quality service, we will lose revenues and customers.
Outsourced staff amounts to 45% of the total customer service workforce in ACME Technology India; if HR lacks sufficient control in hiring and training outsourced staff, customer experience could be negatively impacted.
ACME Technology Commercial provides complete IT solutions to corporate customers; if these services fail to address customer needs in IT security, network speed and connectivity targets, we could lose both revenue and customers.
If you take a look at what the best Hollywood scriptwriters think about loglines, you’ll see that they find them totally indispensable for 3 key reasons:
- They serve as an indicator of the value of the work being done;
- They help the writer to stay 100% on target during the script writing process;
- They are a tried-and-tested way to grab the attention of overworked and jaded readers.
The best movie scriptwriters write their loglines before they invest months of time and energy in writing a script.
Using Audit Rationale Loglines can help to achieve the following 3 comparably beneficial results:
- Write Audit Rationale Logline for each audit mission when creating the annual audit plan to serve as an indicator of the value of the work which will be done;
- Keep them front-of-mind during your fieldwork to stay 100% on target during the audit mission;
- Make them the opening sentence of your Executive Summary as a tried-and-tested way to grab the attention of overworked and jaded readers.
At the very least, by clearly telling your readers where you’re going from the outset, you’ll make it easier for them to follow you.