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7 Proposal Formatting Tips

The tips below go beyond the basics for how to format your proposals. They help you take advantage of proposal formatting to win your proposals.

  1. Two Headings are Better Than One. Instead of just a normal heading, use a short, descriptive heading plus a theme statement. The theme statement should be the conclusion that you want the customer to reach after reading the section. For example, the heading might say "Management Plan" in 16pt Arial Bold. Right underneath it (no line skip) it might say "XYZ company has the resources, procedures, and staffing in place to start this project immediately without delay or risk" in 12pt Times Italic. Then skip a line and start the narrative. You can do this with every heading, but you may only wish to do it for the first few heading levels. If you include the themes in your Table of Contents, you'll gain the added advantage of having a Table of Contents that tells your story.

  2. Make It Easy to Evaluate Compliance. Whereever you can, put the text of the RFP you are responding to into your proposal. An easy way to do this is to drop in a single-cell table and give it a gray background. Put the RFP text in it at a smaller point size (I use 9pt) than the narrative text. Put a small heading in the box that says something like "This section responds to the following RFP requirements:" Under a single numbered section heading in your proposal, you can have a series of RFP tables and responses. Or you can group multiple RFP requirements in a single table and respond to them collectively. How you allocate and respond to the RFP requirements depends on the particular RFP. If you can't include the full text of the RFP, then include paragraph numbers and/or keywords so the customer can easily look it up. Do what makes the most sense and will be the easiest for the customer to evaluate.

  3. Keep It Short. In sales letters and advertising, there is an age-old debate between the merits of long copy versus short copy. That debate does not apply to proposals. Nobody wants to read more in a proposal than they have to. Keep your writing style short to the point of being terse. Don't pad it out to make it "sound better." Say what you need to say and then end it. If you can deliver a proposal that is only one page long, don't add another page to make it "look more substantial." If you are worried that your proposal is too short, put your fears to rest. The issue is not whether your proposal is long enough, it's whether you have answered all of the questions that the customer is going to have. You need to do that, but you don't need it to be one page longer than is necessary to do it. If you have said anything that does not impact the evaluation, delete it. If you have unsubstantiated claims, either delete them or substantiate them.

  4. Put It In An Appendix. If you must provide supporting documentation, put it in an appendix. Especially if they didn't ask for it. If you want to include resumes and they didn't ask for them, put them in an appendix. If you want to provide commendation letters, put them in an appendix. If you want to provide data sheets, put them in an appendix. If you want to provide proof of insurance, financing, samples, or documents, put them in an appendix. Take everything that is not part of your story and put it in an appendix. That way, those who want to read (or do due diligence) will have all the content they desire, and those who don't want to read will be more likely to get through your story before they start skipping pages.

  5. Don't Forget Your Website. Anything that could go into an appendix could go on your website instead. Just give them the links. Any proposal that includes a software component should include a link to a demo on your website. Even if it is just a collection of prototype screen shots, you should invite them to come see it. If the proposal is important to you, make it interactive. If you are early in the process (pre-RFP), you can invite them to a slide show, and on each page ask them if a feature is "Very Important, Moderately Important, or Not Important" to go to the next page. A website gives you the opportunity to exchange information in ways that can't be done with a paper brochure or PowerPoint presentation. Take advantage of it.

  6. Don't Bind It Like a School Report. How you bind your proposal isn't that important. Just don't make it look like a school report. A three-ring binder or GBC binding is fine. But a report cover that looks like a school report sends the wrong impression. A staple is better.

  7. Black-and-White or Color? These days color printing is fairly inexpensive. You can look professional with a black-and-white proposal when your competitor has color. You just have to work harder at it. But really, it's not a question of what looks "more professional," it's a question of what communicates better. If you are printing in color, make sure that you are using color to communicate. You do this by using color to signal, classify, remind, direct attention, focus, highlight, or achieve some other purpose.

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By Carl Dickson,
Founder of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY



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