Plain language tips for painless proposal writing

A proposal is effectively a job application, so you need to write it with the same enthusiasm that you would your own CV. Obviously your CV needs to be well written and show the required experience, but you also need to stand out from the crowd. You need to convince the reader you want the job and have taken time to understand their needs.

Whether your proposal is a simple letter or a 200-page document, follow our tips to get it right.

Research the client to identify unspoken needs

Image, person looking at a story board

Investing time into research can give your proposal a winning edge. Image by Pexels. Pixabay open licence.

Before you start writing, learn everything you can about your client. Visit their website, look at their social media accounts, and check if they’ve been mentioned in the news. This will help you to understand what’s going on under the surface — what your client is worried about and what they want to achieve in the future.

Draw on sources such as annual reports and company values to add a personal touch to your proposal. Make this as obvious as you can — don’t be afraid to say something like:

‘We share your value of X — we show it in our work by…’

This shows the client that you’ve taken the time to learn about them instead of just sending a generic response.

Use information from the client carefully — don’t assume it’s correct or complete

Clients are often guilty of recycling old proposal requests, which may have irrelevant or incorrect information in them. I’ve read proposal requests that give two different deadlines for one piece of work, or provide marking criteria that don’t add up to 100%. Clients usually won’t accept queries about their documents after a certain date, so it’s vital to identify problems like this before it’s too late.

Read every word of the request. The client might hide important information in unusual places, or ask questions in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.

Highlight the major points in the scoring criteria, where they’ve conveniently spelled out for you how to get top marks.

Remember: it’s about the reader, not about you

However enthusiastic you are about what you’re offering, the client starts off not caring. It’s your job to make them care through providing concrete proof.

Don’t just bombard the reader with features:

‘We assign a dedicated client manager to each client, as well as a back-up manager.’

Explain the benefits of those features as well:

‘As well as a dedicated client manager, we’ll assign you a back-up manager. This gives you reassurance that our work won’t be interrupted if the client manager is sick.’

Write clearly, or don’t write at all

If the reader can’t understand what you’ve written, there’s no point in submitting your response — they’ll probably throw it away and move on to the next one.

Many proposal writers fall into the trap of thinking they’re writing a ‘formal’ document, so they need to sound formal. This leads to an unnatural writing style peppered with pompous, confusing language and long stretches written in the third person.

Think about which of these sentences seems more personal:

‘The dedicated client relationship manager will be available to converse with the client on a round-the-clock basis to ensure optimal communications.’

Or

‘You’ll be able to call on your dedicated relationship manager at any time.’

Your reader might not be an expert in your field (they could be a CEO, an accountant, or a procurement manager), so you need to spell out benefits that seem obvious to you. Using familiar language will help — this doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’, but avoiding jargon, technical terms, and unusual words, all of which can distance you from the reader.

Use headings to guide busy readers

Proposal readers are often pressed for time and will probably skim-read any proposal over a few pages long. Depending on their role, they may only be interested in one section. This is where clear, explanatory headings can make all the difference. Consider which of these headings encourages you to read more:

‘Programme management’

Or

‘Three ways you’ll benefit from our new approach to programme management’

Answer the question

The easiest way to disqualify your proposals is to answer questions with recycled, irrelevant, long-winded, or confusing information. Review what you’ve written and ask yourself:

Prove the benefits

Ask yourself two questions to ensure you write from the reader’s point of view: ‘So what? What’s in it for me?’

Imagine visiting a shop to look for a new smartphone and reading this information:

‘The Pineapple 6 smartphone features a 2.4GHz processor.’

You might not know that ‘GHz’ stands for gigahertz. You might not even know what gigahertz are, or what a processor does. In which case, you’d ask a salesperson ‘So what? What’s in it for me?’ They might respond:

‘A 2.4 gigahertz processor lets you run several demanding apps at the same time.’

Now they’ve spelled out the benefit for you. You’d probably want some proof before spending hundreds of dollars though, so they could let you try out your favourite apps on the phone to see how well it runs. In the same way, your client will want proof of the benefits you’re offering before agreeing to spend thousands or millions of dollars.

Write your executive summary last (but not at the last minute)

Remember that many readers will only scan your proposal at first. In some cases, reading the executive summary is the only thing they’ll do before deciding whether to read the rest of the document.

Your executive summary will have the most impact if you write it after the rest of the proposal. The content of proposals often changes significantly during the writing process, so an executive summary written at the start could soon bear little relevance to the finished document.

Take your time writing the summary to ensure you demonstrate your research and make the initial connection with the reader. Your aim is not to summarise what you’ll do, but to showcase the benefits of your approach.

You need to catch the reader’s attention early. An easy way to do this is to refer to the reader in your first sentence, and refer to them more than yourself. Count how many times you’ve said ‘you’ and ‘we’ in the first page and always aim for more of the former.

Review your work — even the simplest details can make a big difference

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Do as many reviews as you have time for to make sure you spot every mistake. Image by Helloquence. Unsplash licence.

Giving clients a well-presented, error-free document will get you off on the right foot, but any mistakes they spot create an impression of incompetence. After all, why should a client trust you to care about their project if you don’t take the time to proofread your own proposal?

Proposals often include text from several writers, each with unique writing styles. This can leave the reader feeling that the document was ‘thrown together’. Take the time to review and edit the whole document to show that your organisation is speaking with one voice.

A typical (and more catastrophic) error in proposals is copying text from previous submissions and forgetting to change the client or project name. This is the quickest way to show the reader you’ve put minimal effort into earning their custom.

Proposals can be rejected for something as small as a checkbox not being ticked — that’s why it’s vital to dedicate time to a final proofread. If you have time, review your document more than once and ask someone else to review it too.

Find out more in our workshop, Writing to Win

Proposals: Writing to Win

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