Thursday, July 26, 2007

Writing a strong executive summary

Whether you’re writing a proposal or preparing a white paper, an executive summary is an integral part of any lengthy or complex report. An executive summary allows the reader to quickly understand the scope of the report, your major finding and your conclusions. It is a succinct wrap-up of the report or proposal’s contents. Because time is such a precious commodity, people who should read an entire report may only skim it. The executive summary allows the readers to know, in one or two paragraphs, what to expect in the report.

The executive summary should be near the beginning of your document and clearly delineated by a heading and formatting. If you know your presentation will be read by many employees, for example if you’re responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for broker services, write the executive summary to the highest ranking person who will read your report.

The executive summary should avoid the nuts and bolts of how to implement a project, but it should give an overview of the problems being addressed, what action to take, and what the benefits of taking that action are.

Your executive summary should be a call to action. Use action phrases such as “We recommend” or “The problems you have faced in prior data conversations can be avoided by utilizing our project management experts.”

Broadly speaking, an executive summary should do the following:

1. Tell your readers what your report contains or what it evaluates.
2. Explain any method of analysis you may have used.
3. Summarize your findings.
4. Succinctly state your recommendations.
5. Briefly state any limitations you encountered that might have impacted the thoroughness of your report.

It may be a good idea to write your executive summary after you have written your report. When you have completed your report or proposal, use a voice recorder and summarize each section of your report. For example, in a white paper, you may have headings such as “problems of integrating technology,” “what to look for in a claims management system,” and “what to expect during data conversion.” Briefly describe the findings of each major section in your white paper, with a strong emphasis in your executive summary of the conclusions that, of course, your company is best positioned to solve. Keep your summary brief—an executive summary should probably be fewer than 1,000 words.

If you’re pitching to a large organization, the executive summary may be the only part of the presentation that the decision makers read. Your report may be passed to lower-level managers to determine whether your proposal has merit. In other words, your executive summary can mean the difference between winning that new account or losing it to your competitor. The extra efforts you apply to develop this summary can reap huge rewards.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Does your client need a risk manager?

In today’s turbulent business client, can your organization afford to ignore risk management? Every organization must consider risks seriously, whether you are a two-person shop or a major corporation reporting to stockholders. Who in your organization performs this function?

Many organizations have an employee who wears many hats, and usually, organizations place insurance, safety and risk management responsibilities with either a finance person or, in larger organizations, a personnel director. That decision may work if you have a small organization, but as your business grows, the greater are your assets at risk and your exposures to loss.

A risk manager analyzes an organization’s core business functions to determine insurance coverage needs and to reduce risk. To analyze coverage, the risk manager must examine the organization’s current and impending activities to determine if those endeavors are covered adequately under its current insurance policies.

For example, a few months ago I heard from a frantic North Carolina business owner. He assumed that, although he had two corporations, all his employees were covered for workers’ compensation. When one of his employees was injured, he found out the hard way that employees under the second corporation were not covered under his workers’ compensation coverage. With thorough risk management and an experienced independent insurance agent, this loss could have been prevented.

The risk manager often becomes to “go-to” person in each organization when employees see trouble on the horizon. “Can we do this?” is a question the risk manager must answer frequently. A risk manager’s job is rarely to say “no.” Instead, the job often requires imagination and innovation to answer the question “How can we do this?”

A risk manager’s job may involve working with line supervisors to ensure employees are following safety procedures. If you have no written personnel or safety procedures, a risk manager will work with peers to develop them for your organization. Personnel issues such as sexual harassment or potential dismissals may, in conjunction with human resource officers, involve the risk manager.

Training, such as supervisor safety training, will probably fall to a risk manager. Safety inspections and adherence to safety policies are a regular part of the risk management function, as well.

Managing claims is an integral part of the insurance function. The risk manager works with other managers to ensure all losses, whether injury or property damage, are reported timely to insurance carriers. Developing a reporting procedure for all claims to guaranty prompt claims reporting is critical to accident management.

Educational backgrounds vary among risk managers. While most hold at least a bachelor’s degree and professional accreditations such as the Associate in Risk Management developed by the Insurance Institute of America, the major issue to consider is the ability to think creatively to either embrace where appropriate or avoid risk. While a risk manager must be able to interact with senior managers and board members, he or she must also be comfortable with line employees, where safety problems occur most frequently. If you must choice, choose excellent communication skills and good common sense over technical training.

When is it time to consider either hiring a risk manager? First, there are “rent-a-risk managers” who will consult with your organization for a monthly or annual fee. However, if the potential savings a risk manager offers your organization exceeds his or her salary, given an acceptable rate-of-return, your organization should strongly consider hiring a risk manager.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

How not to talk to a journalist

Because I have no shame, I am going to share my most embarrassing interviewing mistake. I was a new cub freelancer, still green behind the ears, to mix a metaphor. I had read an interesting article in a trade journal that made me realize I could expand on that topic by delving into it more deeply. I really thought one of the insurance executives who was quoted had an astute insight into the issue. This was a bit before Google, so I tracked him down through a couple phone calls.

He agreed to talk to me, making clear he had only a moment for me, and said abruptly, "So, what's your question." I froze. I absolutely could not get one word out of my mouth.

After a couple of seconds, I managed to stutter something like, "Well, I loved what you said in the article in National Underwriter and I wondering if you could elaborate on that."

The fact that I didn't have a specific set of questions for him was my mistake, born of inexperience. But what happened next was his mistake. Instead of taking a moment to ask me to remind him of what he said, or to somehow lead me along a bit (remember, I was new at this and it showed!), he snapped, "I don't have time for this. Either ask a question or get off the phone."

I thanked him for his time and hung up. That was 15 years ago, and guess what? I'll never bother him again and I remember his name. So what's the lesson?

Most reporters have never owned a business, been subject to a profit motive, and except for the few that specialize in insurance and work for the trade journals, don't understand insurance all that well. As your own public relations band, it's your role to become an orchestra leader. You must guide the interviewer when needed. And always, no matter how busy you are, be gracious. People remember jerks.

I have provided a link to an interesting article about how to talk to journalists written by a journalist.

Friday, July 6, 2007


Editing documents is my business, so I have a particular routine down. First, I write the article, often stream of conscious, not worrying about spelling (I use auto correct for the simple errors). Then, on screen, I go back over the document a few times to ensure I've caught the most flagrant errors.
Next, I print, always double spaced. Then I edit, usually away from my desk, in another room, away from where I created the document, normally using my German shepherd as a footstool. I use a red Precise Rolling Ball red pen, which I buy in bulk. I use standard editing marks, which you can find here.
Then, I return to the computer and make changes, reread on line again, then print. I often print and edit an article four or five or six or more times before I'm ready to consider it a finished product. In the interest of recycling, for new rough drafts I reuse paper.
Here's the most important tip of all. If your document is important (and I maintain every one is except the most mundane e-mail to a pal), then lay the document aside overnight and reread it the next morning with a fresh eye. Here is my guarantee--if you do this, your communications will improve a great deal.
The eye finds many, many errors more errors when you print your document rather than if you edit on-line.
My favorite spell check error occurred when I was a public sector risk manager. I was on the board of PRIMA-AZ Chapter, and the President that year was the former State of Arizona's Attorney General, and a wonderful, high-profile woman. As president, it was her role to put out the Chapter's newsletter. She apparently relied a little too heavily on spell check, because when I read the newsletter after it arrived in the mail, on the front page in big letters was the word "Public" spelled without the letter 'l'.
She had a great sense of decorum, but a better sense of humor, so I lost not one minute calling her to crow about her error. There was dead silence on the phone for a moment, then she said flatly, "I'm blaming YOU!"
We both laughed and learned how to take "public" without the 'l' out of our spellchecks. Come back soon and I'll tell you how to remove words from your on-line dictionary. It may save you some embarrassment.
P.S. One of my sharp-eyed friends just emailed me to point out a typo, which I fixed. That shows Stillman's comment is true: someone else needs to proof your document, too!

Monday, July 2, 2007

A beautiful website

Need a breather from your day? Planning a vacation soon? Then visit my brother's website and visit the "Arizona" link. As you scroll over the various sites, a pop-up will appear of that destination. Of course I'm biased, but I've traveled all over the United States and then some and to me, Arizona is one of the most beautiful places on earth. For diversity, there is no state more varied.

If you reside in the Phoenix metropolitan area and need insurance, give Carol M. Kahn a call at 623-931-5343. Northwest Insurance puts its clients first.

And for another shameless promotion, one of my other brothers, Stillman Thomas, designed both my website and the Northwest Insurance website. You can contact him here or through me (he works with me from time-to-time on technical projects). Isn't he a great designer?

This month's Rough Notes magazine had an article about husband-and-wife insurance teams. Give it a read. If you're tired of struggling to find good employees, why not shake your family tree?