If I had my way, each executive summary would be in the first person. But then the world has yet to see it my way.
Whether you write your executive summary in the first or third person generally depends on your relationship with the client. It is like this. The larger the organization, the more likely it is to use the third person, a more formal tone. The more familiar you are with the client and the better the relationship, the more likely your executive summary can be written in the first person and will be more informal and conversational. For entrepreneurs, this tends to be more true with small business clients with whom they have worked and built relationships.
But keep this in mind. Whether you use the first person or the third person in your executive summary, the choice is based on the relationship. If you have a great relationship with the top management of a major organization, you can use the first person. I mean, me, me, us, us. However, if the executive summary will be viewed by other people who may not appreciate the low-key, warm, first-person language you are likely to use, or may not have a relationship with you, stick with the third person; he / she, he / she, they / they, is.
It is up to you to decide whether using the first person in your executive summary meets the customer’s comfort level. For example, you might say to the client, “We suggest that you take this course of action. If you agree, I will schedule an appointment with your people and then we can go over the next steps.” That is first person and informal.
Generally speaking, you will not or should not use the first person when providing an executive summary to any organization you do not know; ie government, large corporations, NGOs. They are likely to be surprised if you start using I or We. They won’t expect you and the problem you face is that they will dismiss any great proposal simply because of the language you have used.
There are exceptions? Sure there are. Some organizations are just different. They are progressive, creative, more open to alternative approaches. A sports team, an entertainment company, and even a political organization may be wanting to see something out of the ordinary. If your proposal is unique, your executive summary must be unique. You don’t have to follow a traditional third-person format.
My criteria for developing an executive summary, in addition to being a summary of your proposal, is that it be accessible. What do I mean by accessible and how does it relate to first or third person use? I bet you’ve read a book or article that you thought had great content, but it turned out to be a difficult read. By accessible, I mean that the writing is easy to follow, easy to understand, and that complex problems are explained effectively. Books, documents and proposals are often put aside if they are not accessible. People can’t be bothered to read them, including me. My point is that I think writing in the first person is generally more accessible. You can write in your own voice. It is very natural, it tends to be warmer and therefore more accessible. It can even be better understood.
I said at the beginning that the world had not yet adapted to my thinking about using the first person. That’s not entirely true, thanks to the impact of social media. Social media is turning relationship building upside down. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter are building relationships that could never have existed in the past. These new connections are driving inbound marketing, largely through blogging, and blogs are invariably written in the first person. This relationship building through social media is creating a more informal world. That, in turn, is affecting the way we communicate in other areas. So don’t expect an executive summary to be as rigid in the third person as it has been in the past.
But what if you have to stick with a formal third person to respond to that RFP or other proposal, but would like to add some personality to your proposal? You may not be able to use the executive summary, but guess what. Your cover letter gives you that option. It is from you, it is in the first person, you can distinguish it, your unique qualities, what you really would like the client to know about you and your company.
Executive summary in first or third person? Ask yourself what kind of relationship you have or don’t have with the customer. You can always play it safe by using the third person. If it can be more personal and informal, and the customer relationship warrants it, consider using the first person.