Executive Summary: Will it be in first or third person?
If I had my way, every executive summary would be in the first person. But the world has not yet come to see it my way.
Whether you write your executive summary in first person or third person usually depends on your relationship with the client. It’s 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 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.
Purpose – keep this in mind. Whether you use first or third person in your executive summary, the choice depends on the relationship. If you have a great relationship with the senior management of a major organization, you can use the first person. That is – me, me, us, us. However, if your executive summary will be seen by others who won’t appreciate the low-key, warm, first-person language you’re likely to use, or who don’t have a relationship with you, stick with third person; he/she, he/she, they/them, it/it.
It’s up to you to decide if using the first person in your executive summary fits the client’s comfort level. For example, you might say to the customer, “We suggest you take this course of action. If you agree, I’ll schedule an appointment with your people and then we can go over the next steps.” That’s in the first person, and informal.
Generally speaking, you won’t or shouldn’t use the first person when providing an executive summary to any organization you don’t know; that is, government, large corporations, NGOs. They might be surprised if you start using me or us. They won’t expect it and the problem you are facing 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, or even a political organization may want to see something out of the ordinary. If your proposal is unique, then 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 that connect to first person or third person usage? I bet you have 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 complex issues are explained effectively. Books, articles, and proposals are often pushed 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 – with 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 caught on to my way of thinking about using the first person. That’s not entirely true, thanks to the impact of social media. Social media is revolutionizing relationship building. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter are generating relationships that could never have existed in the past. These new connections are driving inbound marketing, much of it 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 in the past.
But what if you must stick with a formal third party to respond to that RFP or other proposal, but you’d like to give your proposal some personality? You may not be able to use the executive summary, but guess what. Your cover letter gives you that option. It’s from you, it’s first person, you can distinguish yourself, your unique qualities, what you would really like the customer to know about you and your company.
Executive summary in first or third person? Ask yourself what kind of relationship you do or don’t have with the customer. You can always play it safe by using the third person. If you can be more personal and informal, and the customer relationship warrants it, then consider using first person.