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Writing Effective Proposals

Mike Sweeney | January 21, 2009

I spent the last few days reviewing a variety of documents that I’d put into the general “proposal” category – services proposals, product proposals, service and product proposals, requests for proposals (RFPs), etc.  What always amazes me is the wide range of overall quality, structure and writing styles that appear from each proposal to the next.  I am not here to advocate some type of standard proposal structure as that would be impossible (and would eliminate the already decaying value of creativity), but there are some simple tips that should be considered in just about any proposal:

  • Be as brief as possible.  There’s no magic proposal length.  I’ve seen effective 1-page proposals and effective 20-page proposals.  Proposal writers know when they’re including irrelevant information, but we often get sucked into the idea that saying more means the proposal will look more impressive.  Not so.
  • Include background information on company, staff, approach…but do NOT regurgitate the entire company history.  I always include this information even if the recipient knows me well for one simple reason:  there’s always a chance the proposal will land in the hands of other staff members or advisors, and a proposal without some background typically leaves something to be desired.
  • If there is a product involved – be it software or hardware – provide some level of detail on the software or hardware.  Brief written description, screen shots or photos work well, as long as it’s not overkill.  This may not be necessary if the product is not unique to the solution being presented – if the proposal revolves around the use of a specific piece of CRM software (and all other vendors are proposing solutions around that software), then there may not be a need to describe the software in detail.

  • Don’t be afraid to show client lists or short case studies (short being the emphasis) in the proposal.  Again, you never know whose hands the proposal will end up in, and certain types of recipients get more excited about who you’ve worked with than what you’re proposing.
  • By all means, make pricing as easy as possible to understand.  I see this rule broken all the time.  Especially with a proposal that includes multiple pricing components, the recipient should be able to easily scan the pricing page and understand the total cost of your solution, and if relevant the cost of each component.

Of course, sometimes this advice falls flat, as we’ve all run into the client that says, “Really, I don’t need much.  Just give me a one-pager with pricing.  We don’t need anything else.”  When I hear that, I typically ask for clarification – I describe the elements I include in most proposals, and confirm with the prospective client that they do not need to see those different elements.  In most cases when they hear the list, they end up agreeing that the proposal should include more than one page of detail.

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