Great proposal writing is not about finding magic words to persuade the reader. Great proposal writing is simply about helping people make a decision. Proposal writing does not require expertise in the dark art of sales.
Proposal writing that is helpful and credible is good. Proposal writing that is full of the kind of unsubstantiated claims you see in ads will do more harm than good. Customers read proposals to determine what their best alternative is.
The most difficult part of proposal writing is not being descriptive. When you are the customer, you don't want to read about a vendor describing themselves. You want to read about what that vendor can do for you and what makes it your best alternative. Great proposal writing is written from the customer's perspective instead of your own.
To dramatically improve your proposal writing:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.”