5 Tips to Writing the Executive Summary of a Survey Report
Main image for blog post on how to write great white papers
How to Write a Great White Paper that Generates Quality Leads
April 27, 2019

5 Tips to Writing the Executive Summary of a Survey Report

Survey report image for blog post on writing executive summaries

You’ve got the results from your organization’s membership survey, and you know they tell a great story. So how do you craft an executive summary for your survey report that will resonate with your targeted audience?

As a white paper writer, I’ve been hired to write executive summaries. I’ve discovered that they are white papers in disguise. They have a more formal tone, they cite data (and often related research and reports), and they tell an engaging story.

While this blog post is based on lessons I learned from writing the executive summary of a 31-page survey report for Scrum Alliance, the same lessons easily apply to write papers.

If you haven’t heard of Scrum Alliance, it’s the largest professional membership and certification organization in the Agile community. Agile is a set of principles and practices that foster innovation and collaboration in the workplace. And not just in IT departments or the software development industry.

Of course, you don’t have to know anything about Agile to get something from this post. You’re reading this because you’re looking for tips to writing an executive summary for your own survey report based on annual/biennial surveys. So here goes.

1. Tell a bigger story with the data

As with previous reports, Scrum Alliance wanted to highlight key data that reflected shifting attitudes toward Scrum practices. But my client had a greater vision for the executive summary that made the project particularly exciting.

Scrum Alliance wanted to position the survey results within the global phenomenon of the changing world of work, such as Conscious Capitalism, design thinking, and the human-centric approach embraced by global business leaders, such as Sir Richard Branson, of the B Team.

how to write survey report executive summary show trends

In the image above, I’ve highlighted areas where I’m referencing workforce trends.

This made sense, since many of the general principles of these approaches overlap with Scrum and Agile, such as transparency, collaboration, and innovation. They also increase employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Not only that, but adopting Scrum and Agile makes companies much more competitive in the marketplace, an important data point for the C-Suite.

Clearly, this was a great story to tell, one that would resonate with the Scrum Alliance membership as well as a much wider audience outside the organization.

Now think about your own industry.

  • What are the big trends that are creating challenges or opportunities?
  • Do your survey results reflect those trends?
  • And do those trends matter to your audience?

Depending on your goal, you may want to make a local story fit into a national landscape. Or a national story fit into a global one. It really depends what you want to achieve with the executive summary of your survey report.

A word about data…

Consider this as you decide on what to highlight in terms of trends. The Scrum Alliance survey had 44 questions. The executive summary wasn’t going to highlight all 44, because it’s a summary.

Instead, the Scrum Alliance team and data analyst zeroed in on eight questions that they knew reflected change in a certain direction, such as less tension between executives and Agile practitioners or the adoption of Agile in new industries.

They also noted that members still considered certifications as beneficial and viewed Agile favorably. These are important points for an organization that upholds the value of certifications.

As you look at your own data, what will you highlight? What matters to your audience? What reflects your organization’s values and goals? And do you have solutions (i.e., services or products) that address particular issues?

The point is to be strategic in how you present your data and show why it matters in the bigger picture.

2. Cite research

Yes, your survey results indicate what survey respondents have experienced, but that’s only part of the story. What’s going on in your industry or around the world gives context to your results.

 write executive summary survey report cite research

The highlighted areas of the survey report’s executive summary indicate where I’ve cited research to back up my claims.

To pack more punch into your executive summary, you need to cite related research. And not just any research. Cite research that has appeared in trusted publications within your industry. For example, we used sources such as Harvard Business Review, CIO, The New York Times and Forbes. I found more sources by checking the footnotes or links in reports, and by using LexisNexis.

Often, the only way to get your hands on related reports is to provide an email for downloading privileges. That’s no big deal. It’s easy to opt out of someone’s email distribution list after you get their first newsletter or promotion.

We gathered this research before writing the report. And it can be a time-consuming process, not only finding the research you want to cite, but reading the reports themselves to find those golden nuggets.

But believe me, it’s worth it. Using research citations adds credibility to your executive summary. It’s not just your organization and your data that make the story, but your data against a larger backdrop.

3. Quote experts

Research is one thing. You need quotes, too,  to provide substance and color. For the 2017 State of Scrum report, I interviewed four Scrum and Agile experts and asked them the same questions.

For example, why were Scrum and Agile more prevalent in Europe and North America? Why was it practiced in new industries? What was the future of Scrum and Agile?

 write executive summary survey report cite experts

The blue highlights show where I’ve cited different sources in the survey report’s executive summary.

Despite a few exceptions, each subject matter expert gave a different answer with a unique perspective. Their interpretations of the survey results added new dimensions to the report. They explained the results beyond the confines of the organization, offering real-world examples from their own experience.

And they didn’t rubber-stamp the results either, which I think lends the report additional credibility and transparency.

Each interview took about 30 minutes. I recorded and transcribed each interview (a laborious process if you do it yourself). Then I picked out the best quotes and tried to give each source equal time.

As you consider subject matter experts for your own executive summary, take into account their reputation, their comfort level with interviews, and the diversity (if applicable) they represent to your readers.

4. Think visually

With facts, figures and good quotes, you can liven up your executive summary with sidebars and drop quotes. This breaks up the text and lets you present information in a visually stimulating way.

For example, I knew the details of the survey collection were important, but I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the report. So I put them in a sidebar. I did the same to explain Scrum’s history.

 write executive summary survey report Word draft

On the first page of the executive summary draft I submitted, you can see the sidebars I’ve included as suggestions to the designer.

I also used headings and bulleted lists to help readers (think busy executives) scan the content. This is par for the course when writing online content, but it makes sense for printed documents as well, which are great take-aways at trade shows or conferences.

As you format your survey report’s executive summary in Word and later as a PDF, think about how your reader will want to consume the information. A wall of text isn’t as inviting as content presented in bite-sized chunks.

5. Avoid sales jargon

As much as a survey report may work as a marketing piece, it’s not the place to overtly sell anything.

Think about it. You’ve just presented your organization as a trusted partner in a particular industry by juxtaposing the survey results with solid research and thoughtful observations from reputable experts in the field. That in itself is a compelling case to encourage further inquiries from potential clients.

There’s no need to introduce a hard sell, or you’ll turn off the reader. The final page of the report ideally includes a boilerplate about the organization as well as contact information.

Ready to try it yourself?

Survey reports are complicated documents with lots of moving pieces. If you’re going to spend the time and money necessary to produce one, follow these tips to create something that will resonate with your audience and get more eyeballs to your website.

Looking for a white paper writer?

You’ve got a project, but you need a writer. Let’s talk!

Bonnie Nicholls on Linkedin
Bonnie Nicholls
Bonnie Nicholls is a freelance writer specializing in thought leadership content: case studies, articles, white papers/ebooks and blog posts. She supports industries such as Agile/Scrum, defense, cybersecurity, and business services.