Complex business deals must be put into writing. The legal form for this is the contract. However, the document that seeks to influence the decision whether to sign the contract is the proposal. Proposals are produced through a process that is often complex and can involve many people. It is easy to forget that the proposal process is about getting the right black ink on paper.
In fact, it is often the part of the process that involves writing that fills people with dread --- especially those who don't have any experience with proposal writing. When you ask them to write a proposal, suddenly people with solid expertise and otherwise good problem solving skills have no idea how to proceed. You can tell them to write about the benefits, or why what you offer should matter to the customer, but while they understand your words, they still don't know how to get the black ink on paper.
The most common request we get is for samples. Even though the sample may be for a different customer in a different set of circumstances, and even though it could totally steer them down the wrong path, some people crave seeing a sample. I've come to realize this is because they are not confident about choosing words and putting it into writing.
Over the years, we have refined our own proposal writing skills. We often find ourselves following the same patterns, over and over again, to articulate to the decision-maker what matters about what they are reading.
Proposal writing really is this simple
Often people are intimidated by writing because they are focusing on the wrong things. It's not format, style, choice of words, or even grammar that is critical to success. All you need to do is give the reader the information they need to make their choice.
If you have read the RFP, outlined your section, and know what you are supposed to write about, but are still having trouble putting black ink on paper, here is what you should do:
- Tell the customer what you are going to do for them. Just make a statement that sums it up, as if you were discussing it with them.
- Tell them how or why what you are going to do will deliver/ensure/provide/result in what they want
Do this in every sentence.
If you are not sure what words to pick or what style to write in, don't worry. Any sentence that does these two things is a good proposal sentence.
At the paragraph level, do this first. Then provide any supporting details. Never build to the end. Always be upfront.
If you need to state a fact or provide a description and can't link it directly to what they want in the same sentence, split it into two sentences. But make sure you always link everything in your proposal to what they want.
Intermediate proposal writing for those who want to win
It is not enough to deliver something that the customer wants. You have to deliver something that the customer wants more than any other option available to them. This usually comes down to them wanting you more than they want your competition. To achieve this, you must anticipate the attributes of your competition, and make sure that you give them better reasons to want what you are offering.
If you have a written RFP that includes instructions and evaluation criteria, first make sure that you comply with all instructions and requirements. Step one in winning is to not be disqualified. Next, focus on the evaluation criteria. While proposals are written, they are often not read. Instead, they are scored. If the customer will follow a written set of evaluation criteria, make sure that you score well against it.
Get graphic. Think about presentation. If you can replace words with graphics, it is usually better to do so. The more attractive the document, the more likely the customer will put the effort into reading it.
Advanced proposal writing, for those who are willing to invest in winning
Advanced proposal writing has nothing to do with writing. It is all about preparation. In order to write about how you will deliver what they want better than the competition, you have to know a lot about the customer and more than a little about the competition. Advanced proposal writing is about doing your homework long before the writing starts so that you have this information available.
While you are gathering this information, there is something else you need to do. Develop a relationship with the customer. People buy from those they know and trust. If your relationship is solid, the proposal document is secondary to winning. Advanced proposal writing is about winning before the writing even