If I had my way, every executive summary would be in first person. But then the world hasn’t gotten around to seeing it my way, yet.
Whether you write your executive summary in the first person or third person usually depends on your relationship with the client. It’s like this. The larger the organization, the more likely the third person will be used – a more formal tone. The more familiar you are with the client, and the better the relationship, there’s a good chance your executive summary can be written in the first person and be more informal and conversational. For entrepreneurs, this tends to be truer 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 relationship driven. If you have a great relationship with the senior management of a major organization, you might use the first person. That is – I, me, we, us. However, if the executive summary will be seen by others who might not appreciate the low key, warm, first person language you’re likely to use, or don’t have a relationship with you, stick to the third person; he/she, him/her, them/they, it/it’s.
It’s up to you to decide whether using the first person in your executive summary meets the client’s comfort level. For example, you might say to the client “We suggest you take this course of action. If you agree, I’ll set up an appointment with your people then we can go over the next steps.” That’s first person, and informal.
Generally speaking you’re not going to or shouldn’t use the first person when providing an executive summary to any organization you don’t know; i.e., government, major corporations, NGOs. They’re likely to be shocked if you start to use I or We. They won’t expect it and the problem you face is that they will throw out any great proposal simply because of the language you’ve used.
Are there exceptions? Sure there are. Some organizations are just different. They’re progressive, creative, more open to alternate approaches. A sports team, an entertainment company, even a political organization may be longing to see something out of the ordinary. If your proposal is unique then your executive summary needs to be unique. It doesn’t have to follow a traditional third person format.
My criteria in developing an executive summary, besides it being a summary of your proposal, are that it be accessible. What do I mean by accessible, and how does that connect to using the first or third person? I’ll bet you’ve read a book or paper that you thought had great content but turned out to be a difficult read. By accessible, I mean that the writing is easy to follow, easy to grasp – and that complex issues are effectively explained. Books, papers, proposals often get shunted aside if they’re not accessible. People can’t be bothered to read through them, me included. My point is that I believe writing in the first person is generally more accessible. You can write – in your own voice. It’s very natural, tends to be warmer and therefore more approachable. It may even be better understood.
I said at the beginning that the world hadn’t come round yet 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 turning relationship building upside down. 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 blogs, 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 how we communicate in other areas. So don’t expect an executive summary to be as third person rigid as in the past.
But what if you must stick with a formal third person in responding to that RFP or other proposal, yet you’d like to give some personality to your proposal? You may not be able to use the executive summary, but guess what. Your cover letter does give you that option. It’s from you, it’s in the first person, it can distinguish you, your unique qualities, what you’d really like the client to know about you and your company.
First person or third person executive summary? Ask yourself what kind of relationship you have, or don’t have, with the client. You can always play it safe using the third person. If you can be more personal and informal, and the relationship with the client justifies it, then consider using the first person.