Posted by: magnussonllc | October 15, 2009

5 Tips on How to Write Better Proposals

writing2Most business professionals learned the basic 5 paragraph essay format (and about a dozen variations) in school:  Introduction paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and conclusion paragraph. Most variations follow the same concept: introduce, support, conclude. If you are writing a proposal, this is completely backwards.


  • The goal of a proposal is to persuade — here is what I want you to conclude, and here’s why
  • Most proposal evaluators don’t want to be there — here is what I hope you’ll read and here’s the obligatory detail that you’re not going to bother with.
  • A winning proposal is easy to evaluate. Picture the evaluator with a checklist in hand going through your proposal — check, check, check. State conclusions that reflect the evaluation criteria, and then explain how or why.

Never save the best for last, or build to the finish. Give them what they want right up from in firm, positive statements. You still need to provide the explanation and proof for due diligence, but if there is anything about your approach that you really want them to know, anything about it that is special, you should call it out first. Tell them what the approach will do for them, what the benefit of it is, and only then tell them what the approach is.

The goal is not to deprive them of necessary detail, but to give them what they want, in the order they want it. You’ve got to give them a reason to bother reading the detail. Think about why they are reading — they are evaluating what you are proposing in order to do two things: get through the formal evaluation process (completion of scoring forms) and to make a selection. Unfortunately the former is often the primary reason.

In any event, what they are looking for is how to score you and why to select you. If they find those, then they’ll examine what you are proposing to make sure you can deliver. It is always a good idea, in any type of writing, to imagine what it’s like to be the reader.

Here are 5 tips that will improve your proposal writing skills:

1. Ask yourself, “What does the customer want out of this section?” and then give it to them. Think about what you do when you read someone else’s proposal. When someone reads a proposal section, they are on a mission. There are certain things they want to find out in order to decide whether they want what you are proposing more than what your competitors are proposing. Ask yourself what questions the customer will have, and then write directly to them. It may help if instead of writing, you imagine what you would say to them if they were sitting across from you. Instead of writing around what they need to know, go directly to it. Don’t worry about writing style or word choice. Speak to them in your own voice as if you were having a conversation with them.

2. Ask yourself, “What would a skeptical customer worry about in this section?” and then address it. Think about how skeptical you can get when a sales person is trying to sell you something. Part of the reason why customers want a proposal is that they want you to answer their questions and give them all of the information they need to make a decision. When they read what you submit, those questions are at the top of their mind. They are not reading to hear what you have to say, they are looking for answers to those questions. Don’t try to hide from any difficulties, risks, or issues. The customer knows they are there and wants to know if you can handle them. If you don’t address them, they will probably reach the natural conclusion that you can’t.

3. Take each of your headings and turn them into statements. Headings like “Management Plan,” “Staffing Plan,” or “Experience” don’t say anything. Turn them into statements like:

  • [YourName]’s proven management team will carefully oversee our performance.
  • Our dedicated recruiters are already knowledgeable of the local labor market and prepared to staff the project.
  • Our 20 years of experience makes us better prepared than our competitors to solve any issues that may arise during the project.Writing

Those headings may be longer, but they actually say something. They also help you write the section because now you have something to substantiate.

4. Give them something better. Don’t just describe whatever it is you are proposing. Show how it is better. Better than what they have. Better than what your competitors offer. Better than average. Better in any way you can think of. If they ask for something basic, give them something better. If they simply want you to show up on time, then show up early, have a back-up in case you are late, or talk about how in 10 years, you’ve never been late. Just don’t simply say that you’ll show up on time the way they asked, because that’s what everyone else will say. You’ve got to give them something better, even if it’s just a better reason to believe you’ll do what you say.

5. Explain “Why.” Most bad proposal writing is descriptive. It simply describes the company or the offering. Maybe it’s because when people read the RFP and it says to “describe your approach” they think that is what they are supposed to do. Maybe that’s understandable. But look at it from the customer’s perspective. When you read someone’s approach in a proposal, what you are really looking for is to understand why they do it that way. Are they going through the motions, or do they really understand the impact of what they are doing? Is there a benefit to the customer? Reading proposals can get really, really boring. Sometimes the reader just wants to know “why” it matters. You can greatly improve your proposal writing without becoming an expert writer or salesperson, simply by focusing on “why.


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