No one is reading your executive summary

If you’ve ever worked with designers you will know that, on the whole, they have very firm ideas about what makes something good and what makes something bad. And they are not shy about telling you.

As a former banker, I have found tapping into this instinctive knowledge incredibly informative—and something that was missing from my 20 plus years working at an investment bank.

About a year or so ago, an interview candidate and I were talking through a pitchbook. I was looking to hire a junior designer and wanted to get some initial reactions to a typical deck. I didn’t even get past the executive summary before he voiced his first objection. “It doesn’t follow the F-pattern. Half of this will get skipped by the reader” he said.

I’m not a big fan of executive summaries—it steals my thunder!—but wanted to know more about why he considered this ineffective.

Apparently, it’s about which areas of a website attract the eye the most, based on research conducted by a firm called Nielsen Norman Group. It conducted a studytracking how 232 users looked at thousands of web pages and found a distinctive pattern: 
1. The first thing a reader does is horizontally scan the top of the page. 
2. Next, users move down slightly and scan horizontally again. 
3. Finally, they scan the left side vertically. 
These three movements together form the shape of an F.


Image credit: Nielsen Norman Group

Knowing this explains why designers can spend hours mulling optimal text placement, deciding where to put the most important information.

Increasingly presentations are consumed and shared via screens through iPads, WebExs, hangouts, and other means of teleconferencing, so while a pitchbook is traditionally a hard copy asset, it's become something where digital consumption needs to be considered. I think it’s worth taking some inspiration from those picky designers.

As an interesting exercise, I applied the findings of NN Group’s study to a typical executive summary1:, to see the likelihood that key points are scanned. By overlaying the F-shaped pattern, it can be seen which words the client will focus on and which will get skipped over.


You can see how the message is a garbled and unlikely to break through. The words you spent hours mulling over, refining, editing, and polishing probably won’t even be seen. Or put another way, your key point won’t land and your bonus will decrease in size.


Re-designing the executive summary with the F-shape mind, and adding some other copy tweaks to really highlight those key points, it looks something like this:

There is now an increased chance that your carefully crafted words will break through.

A few others things of note from Nielsen Norman Group’s study:

  • Most people skim content, reading only about 20% of the words on the page.

  • As the page length increases, less and less is read.

  • The lead needs to be in the first two sections.

  • Each paragraph should be a separate idea.

  • Use enticing keywords to open a new sentence or paragraph.

Bearing this in mind when you create content can help you convey more information to your clients. So next time you’re creating an executive summary and the auto-deck creator part of you kicks in, stop yourself from writing, “Bank X is pleased to have the opportunity to present to Client Y” and say something interesting instead.

Are there any design lessons you’ve incorporated into pitchbooks? Or any presentation services that have been helpful? Email me at

  1. This is an entirely fictitious executive summary. Don't panic! Although if some of more alarming statements caught your attention, consider it point proven.