proposal writingYou have a real shot at getting the deal.

The potential client tells you your idea is solid, makes great sense, and the price is right.

Send us a proposal!

You search the internet for proposal writing ideas and find 47 different ways to write one.

Each method is a bit different, so now you’re confused and don’t know where to begin.

The problem with proposal writing is the people crafting these don’t take them as seriously as they should.

Many people frown at the thought of proposal writing, and the time it takes.

In fact, a proposal is a tool that can land the contract.

Having taught written communication skills courses for more than four decades, I’ve seen the best and the worst of proposal writing.

I’ve seen proposals quickly discarded by the reader and proposals which landed mega deals.

There have been proposals that go on forever, are illogically developed, wordy, stuffy, and boring.

And conversely, I have seen proposals which are clear, concise, enticing, and win over the reader.

Your proposals must pop!

When people read them, they must be as impressed with the style of your written communication as they are with the actual substance.

14 Tips for Effective Proposal Writing

If you want to woo over your prospect, there are 14 things to consider in your next proposal:

  1. Conciseness rules
  2. Write conversationally
  3. Begin with an executive summary less than four sentences
  4. Keep sentences short and crisp
  5. Keep paragraphs short
  6. Use bullets, numbers, and white space
  7. Avoid using passive voice
  8. Tell a story
  9. Be a fact-based writer
  10. Proofread when you’re fresh and read it aloud
  11. Use the appendix for data support and exhibits
  12. If it’s an oral presentation, NEVER hand out the proposal first
  13. Write a powerful cover letter
  14. Get feedback

Let’s take a look at why each is important in proposal writing.

Conciseness Rules

If you can say it in fewer words, do so. Don’t be repetitive.

Less is always more.

I play a “conciseness” game with my clients. I kiddingly charge them 20 cents for each unnecessary word I find in their proposals or emails.

So, if I find 19 words that are meaningless, they owe me $3.80. How quickly they learn concise proposal writing!

Write Conversationally

Now, I didn’t say writing proposals should be overly informal or bordering on unprofessional.

Instead, write how you speak.

And, if you are embarrassed to verbalize it, certainly don’t write it.

Begin With an Executive Summary Less than Four Sentences

Describe what the proposal purports to do:

  • Why it solves a problem and meets a need;
  • What main features and elements make it truly stand out; and
  • Why this will benefit the recipients and represent an excellent solution.

Give the reader immediate WIIFM—what’s in it for me (them).

Keep Sentences Short and Crisp

The concept of “compound sentences” relates to academia, not proposal writing.

Limit your sentence to one main idea, not two or three.

And note, if a sentence runs longer than 15 words, try to divide it into two short, easy-to-read sentences.

Keep Paragraphs Short

Many readers ignore or skim overly-long paragraphs because they’re tedious to read.

Studies show the same information written in short paragraphs wields five times better comprehension and retention than long paragraphs.

Use Bullets, Numbers, and White Space

The goal is “reader-ease.”

Bulleted and numbered lists catch the reader’s eye. White space between items makes them stand out.

Use bulleted lists when order and sequence don’t matter; numbered lists when order and sequence are important.

Also, numbered items are easier to reference in follow-up conversations.

Avoid Using Passive Voice

Would you verbally tell a person, “It is recommended that the system is implemented by Q1”?

Or would you say “We recommend implementing the system by Q1″?

Active voice comes across more firmly, decisively, concisely, and stronger than passive voice.

Tell a Story

Here’s a concise seven-step format for effective proposal writing.

  1. Use headings
  2. Open with an appealing executive summary
  3. Give the overall background—state what the problem is and why your solution works
  4. Present the specifics of your plan
  5. Number key features and bullet benefits
  6. State costs and rationale
  7. Recommend next actionable steps and time parameters

Be a Fact-based Writer

Focus on hard facts, credible examples, factual illustrations, proven evidence, analytics, and real-life experiences.

Stay away from excessive opinions, suppositional or unsubstantiated thoughts, speculation, hyperbole, and sales-y language.

Proofread When You’re Fresh and Read it Aloud

You’ll catch mistakes, grammatical flaws, illogical thoughts, rambling, and repetition.

Don’t silently lip move and sub-vocalize the proofread.

This is where embarrassing errors can slip by unnoticed!

Use the Appendix for Data Support and Exhibits

Here is where proposal writing can lose its pop and endanger deals.

Yes, it’s important to supply all relevant tables, charts, graphs, and exhibits.

But, put these in the appendix and write “see Appendix A, B, C, etc.”

Remember: the proposal is a sales tool, not a book.

In Oral Presentations, NEVER Hand Out the Proposal First

That’s a recipe for failure.

If you hand out the proposal first, people will read through it while you’re presenting it.

And some wise guy might say, “Hey, I don’t agree with your thoughts on page four,” even though you haven’t gotten to that page yet.

Instead, hand out a summary at the outset, and mention that the full written proposal will be handed out at the conclusion of the meeting.

Write a Powerful Cover Letter

This could have been point number one!

Your cover letter must be as stimulating and impressive as the proposal itself.

Avoid trite, overused phrases such as ‘as soon as possible,’ ‘at this point,’ ‘that being said,’ ‘thanking you in advance,’ ‘as you are well aware,’ ‘please be advised that,’ ‘bottom line impact’…and the list goes on.

Be sure your cover letter effectively represents who you are and what you are about to propose.

Get Feedback on the Proposal

Sometimes this can be a bit awkward, but why not ask the reader how your proposal came across, and if they have any suggestions for improvement.

Real-life feedback can be invaluable!

So remember, what you write is critical, but how you deliver it can make all the difference.

Wonderfully-substantive, fact-based proposals, which are a nightmare to read, can lose deals.

Logically-developed, stimulating, effectively-written proposals tell readers who you are, what’s in it for them, and often make the difference in closing the deal.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe the way a proposal is written can lead to deal or no deal, but that’s the world we live in.

Good luck with your proposal writing!

Roger Flax

Roger E. Flax, Ph.D. is the President and Founder of Horizon Talent Developer ™, an internet-based feedback and mentoring program his firm licenses to organizations to support Learning Development Directors, Executives, Human Resources Professionals, Talent Management and Development Directors and more. As an executive coach, speaker, and corporate consultant, he has impacted millions of business professionals through leadership training. He founded one of America’s most successful leadership development consulting firms in 1970 which has conducted thousands of programs in five continents for more than 400 companies. He has been featured on TV, radio and in print media outlets including ABC, CBS, FORTUNE, Entrepreneur, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many others regarding talent development, motivational feedback, and high-impact presentations training.

View all posts by Roger Flax