Is your proposal's executive summary worth the bother?

Companies spend a lot of time and effort polishing the executive summary that goes with proposals but the truth is many executive summaries never get read. Here's why and what value you can add to these documents.

True or false? The executive summary convinces the decision maker to award your company the contract.

In the world of federal proposals, it is most likely false. Why? Because according to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), Government Source Selection Evaluation Board (SSEB) officials must score and rate your proposal based solely on the evaluation factors and subfactors. If the executive summary is not identified in the evaluation criteria, it cannot be the basis for scoring. Government proposal evaluators may only read content tied to their assigned evaluation factor(s).

Therefore, they may never read the executive summary.

But what about the final decisionmaker, the Source Selection Authority (SSA)? Won’t he or she act favorably upon reading a compelling executive summary? The answer is, not necessarily. Even if the SSA reads the executive summary, they cannot use it as the basis for award if it is not part of the evaluation criteria. The award decision must be solely based on relative strengths, weaknesses, deficiencies, and risks tied directly to the evaluation factors. Know, however, that if the SSA does read the executive summary, it may provide information that both helps them ask the SSEB questions to ensure the evaluation findings are thorough and fair. It can also aid their understanding of the evaluation results.

So, even if the executive summary is listed in the proposal instructions, if it is not identified as an evaluation factor, it cannot be scored. However, if the instructions require an executive summary, evaluators are more likely to read it. Therefore, make sure it is compliant and consistent with the rest of the proposal. A compliance issue or inconsistency with the rest of the proposal could result in a lower score.

If you articulate discriminating strengths in the executive summary and make the executive summary the sole home of your value proposition, you risk lowering your score. While a compelling and persuasive executive summary is a positive, much more important is articulating strengths in the narrative directly tied to evaluation factors that SSEB officials must score.

So why does an Executive Summary matter?

Many bidders waste productive time writing and rewriting the executive summary. Polishing the executive summary wastes valuable proposal cycles better spent articulating strengths and mapping these discriminators to the evaluation factors and RFP requirements.

The true purpose of the executive summary is to ensure a better hand-off from capture and solutioning to the proposal team pre-RFP. The capture manager is responsible for writing the executive summary before the RFP drops. The executive summary summarizes the solution strengths developed and approved pre-RFP. The document is a synopsis of your value proposition comprised of discriminating strengths. In the federal procurement world, strengths are features with proven benefits of merit that exceed requirements and/or, depending on the evaluation methodology, significantly reduce risk in a manner the customer values.

When the capture manager drafts the executive summary pre-RFP, it is not the same narrative that ends up in the final proposal. The purpose is to get the entire team—capture, solution architects, technical proposal writers, and pricing—on the same page. When everyone understands the value proposition, then the writers, reviewers, and pricing analysts create consistent, compelling content.

Productivity increases because the team focuses on polishing the content rather than rewriting a poorly articulated solution. The focus is on articulating strengths tied directly to evaluation factors and subfactors in order of importance to attain the highest possible score or rating.

So, what’s a proposal manager to do?

Put your effort where it counts. When the capture team hands the opportunity to the proposal team, require a draft executive summary. Distribute and discuss it with the entire team as part of proposal kickoff. Then, consult the RFP for instructions, if any, and revise the executive summary accordingly to make it compliant and consistent. If the RFP does not require an executive summary, keep it succinct, almost like a 2-minute elevator speech. In either situation, map the executive summary narrative to the compelling solution strengths for the win.