There are a lot of bad examples of proposal outlines out there on the Internet. Often what they teach at universities leads people to lose their business proposals. The nature of the outline depends on the type of proposal and the expectations of the evaluator. Here is an example of a proposal outline that was bad and how we improved it.
For business proposals, proposal outlines should be driven by the customer's instructions. What goes into your outline starts with the Request For Proposals (RFP), and then incorporates the things you need to say in order to demonstrate that what you offer is the best alternative for the customer.
A typical RFP will require you to respond to the following topics. Different RFPs will use different terminology, so they often change the names. Sometimes they drop a topic or add a new one. But generally they require:
- An Executive Summary that says what you will do or provide to the customer and how the customer will benefit from what you propose. It is where you introduce your company and any teammates or partners. It is also where you should make your case for why the customer should accept your proposal ahead of any alternatives they may have.
- A Statement of Work or Technical Approach to describe what you will do or provide to the customer. This will usually include your approaches, an implementation or delivery schedule, and the specifications for any deliverables. If products are being proposed, then product descriptions are usually provided (the amount of detail depends on the customer’s requirements).
- A Management Plan to describe how you will organize and supervise any work to be performed. A schedule of major milestones and allocation of resources is usually included, as well as your approach to quality assurance and risk mitigation.
- Your Qualifications to demonstrate your capability to do or provide what you are proposing. Relevant prior experience is usually highlighted. Past Performance and References may also be required.
- A Staffing Plan to describe how the project will be staffed is sometimes required for service contracts. If particular people are important to the approach, their resumes are usually included.
- Contracts and Pricing. If the proposal is being used to close a business deal, then business and contractual terms are usually provided.
Some RFPs will set a page limit for the length of the proposal. Some don’t. Some RFPs will tell you the format/layout to use, and some won’t. Some RFPs will tell you what evaluation criteria and process the customer will follow. And some won’t. The customer sets the standards and defines the rules.
If your proposal is going to be submitted to a Government agency, then the composition and layout of the proposal may have regulatory requirements to comply with. In the case of the Federal Government, these are usually based on the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). Government RFPs can get so complicated that you need to create a compliance matrix in order to determine what the outline should be.
But what if there is no RFP and the customer has not given you any instructions for the proposal outline?
Then, you should base the outline on what the customer will need to see, and approach it by looking at it from the customer's perspective. Here is a link to something we wrote describing the best way to approach creating a proposal outline so that it reflects the customer's perspective.
Going beyond the outline of your proposal
There is a lot that goes into the content of a well-written proposal. It involves more than just what the customer requires and what you offer. What should go into your proposal should answer all the questions the customer might have, implement your strategies for winning the proposal, articulate your story and messages, and reflect what matters to the customer. Planning the content of a complex proposal requires going well beyond just an outline. In fact, we've created a whole methodology for figuring out what should go into the content of your proposals.