Cover letter vs exec summary

Bidders are often unclear on the difference between a cover letter and an executive summary. In the last two posts, we reviewed common cover letter mistakes and also how to write a hard-working cover letter—one that does more than simply fill a couple of pages.

So you might ask: “Isn’t a cover letter that explains your proposal’s key selling points just an executive summary-lite?”

This post explains how we distinguish between these important opportunities.

Cover letter vs. exec summary

The following comparison assumes your proposal responds to a formal RFP or RFQ. Short and/or informal proposals may have different requirements.

  • PURPOSE: The cover letter’s job is to get the reader’s attention and then position your offer highlighting three or four differentiators while sowing doubt about your competitors’ offers. The executive summary’s purpose is more ambitious. It should serve as a mini proposal for the senior decision maker—typically the economic buyer—who may read this section and nothing more. As such, it needs to capture your key selling arguments in non-technical language.
  • FOCUS: The cover letter focuses on tactical reasons for the purchase; the executive summary ties the purchase to the prospect’s strategic goals.
  • LENGTH: We recommend one or two pages for a cover letter. A typical executive summary is much longer—up to 10 percent of the narrative. Note: If your narrative runs more than 100 pages, consider limiting the summary to about 10 pages to ensure it ends before the reader loses interest.
  • OPENING: In this post we provided a cover letter opening citing the RFP’s tactical requirements. Aim higher with the executive summary by showing you understand the prospect organization’s strategic priorities. This demonstrates ability to think at the level of the economic decision maker and senior leadership and to be a strategic partner.
  • CONTENTS: As described last week, the cover letter cites three or four points of differentiation, and then expands on each. The executive summary uses a similar structure to demonstrate how key aspects of your solution support the prospect’s long-term goals. We’ll provide more detail in next week’s post.

Can a cover letter serve as the executive summary?

Yes. The cover letter can double as an executive summary in very short proposals, or in the case of page-limited proposals where the format doesn’t provide for a summary or introduction. In this case, the cover letter can run to four or five pages and should include visualizations.

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