Monday, March 23, 2009

10 things to improve your proposals in less than 10 minutes

These aren't here to cut corners - there's no such thing in writing business proposals (efficiency yes, corner-cutting no!). They are here though to give you some ideas on how little things can improve your proposals, bids and/or your thinking.

1. Spell check.
I forgot to spell check something recently. Fortunately this wasn't a proposal so all it cost me was a little embarrassment when I got an email pointing out the typo. Don't let spell checking replace proper proof-reading, but it's a good place to start.

2. Reading blogs and newsletters.
Don't just read great proposal blogs like The Proposal Guysand Tom Sant'sMessages that Matter.Read something that might just give you a new approach to something. Try Seth Godin and Reed Holden as a good place to start.

3. Creating a front page with impact.
Have a look at the front page of your proposal. Imagine it with 6 other similar documents. Would yours be the one that you wanted to reach out and read first? If it isn't...

4. Talk to your graphics people
Graphics can create a powerful way to convey complex messages, explain, persuade and aid retention in the reader. Get you graphics people involved in coming up with ideas to get you message across effectively.

5. Get feedback from the client
Call them, ask for a meeting, give them a form to fill out. However you do it, get some feedback off the people who thought you weren't good (or just not) persuasive enough - and especially off the clients who thought you were. Why did they choose you? Find out and leverage it in your next proposal.

6. Make a wish list of what you'd really like to be able to say in your proposals
If the technical people weren't there to say it can't be done it that time, with that budget, what would your perfect solution look like when you write a proposal? Figure it out and then ask "how can we do it?"

7. Edit a piece of boilerplate
Your boilerplate library may be huge...some of it goes back years. So freshen up one piece of content every day. Add the latest product release details or freshen up that resume with the most recent assignments. And whilst you are looking at resumes...

8. Take a picture of your project team
Not bad pictures, good quality professionally taken photographs that reflect your organisations style. It makes the resumes in your proposal a lot more readable.

9. Have a competition
Do you need to get new project case-studies from the sales team (who don't want to do them)? Then have a competition, they can submit as many as they like and the best one wins a good prize. Credit to Tom Sant's messages that matter for that one.

10. Visit Learn to Write Proposals, of course! Just enough time to read our latest articles and subscribe to our newsletter, blog and twitter feed! And let us bring the best proposal resources, advice and information straight to you.

Keeping it short and simple and jargon free

I recently posted a reply on the must-read Proposal Guys blog, which is of course about proposal writing.

The original post was providing a great example of unreadable jargon used in a real proposal. My reply got me thinking about short meaningful messages, where there is no room to waster your words:

There was a recent programme on Radio 4 on the development of language, particularly in relation to “texting”.

There were two things that I found interesting. Firstly was the rise
in 160 poetry where poems are created in 160 characters or less. Second
was the rise in Japan of entire stories that can be sent in short text

So what has this got to do with anything? Well, if you only have 160
characters to convey a message or a story it makes you think about your
words very carefully. Everyone of them has to matter - you certainly
don’t end up with a 94 word sentence.

The page should be considered expensive real estate where words are valued and thought given to each one.

I wonder what a “160 proposal” would look like, though I dnt cr fr th spllng 2 mch.

Oh, and if you are interested to see what a 160 poem reads like then
your may be interested to know that in 2002 Emma Passmore won £1,500
with this:

I left my pictur on th ground wher u walk

so that somday if th sun was jst right

& th rain didnt wash me awa

u might c me out of th corner of yr i & pic me up

Another example of this texting as a message of course, is Twitter, so I've started twittering. I'm going to use this as a way of letting people know what's new on the Learn to Write Proposals site, but also to pass on some short proposal tips.

Follow Learn to Write Proposals on Twitter

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Learn to Write Proposals not alone in the fight against jargon

Ever read (or tried to) an invitation to tender or proposal notice from a local authority?

Did it have any of these words in it (visit the link)?

The Local Government Association is trying to improve the use of plain English:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is your sales message clear when you write a business proposal?

I recently saw this job advert and read it. Then I read it again and again. And I still had not the faintest idea what the job was about. This is a really good example of bullxxxt bingo!

It's full of jargon, completely unreadable and at the end of it you don't know what it's about. There's sometimes a danger when writing technical proposals that buzzwords start getting thrown around...come to think of it, it doesn't have to be technical for jargon to appear.

We'll cover some aspects of clarity in writing in the next couple of blogs, so if you want to maximise your intellectual capital to declutter your corporate communications whilst rightsizing your client-relationship message transfer then we are going to show you how to re-vitalize a core-competency to move into a gazelle paradigm. Eh?

The short message - this is an advertisement for a job - it's trying to sell something, a place to work. You proposals are there to sell and in order to do that there has to be no confusion what it's about and what you are offering. Look at this job advert. It scores incredibly badly on readability tests but most importantly you have no idea what you would actually be doing if you took this job. Apart from "Build relationships and manage the delivery of a consultation process with stakeholders in line with future strategies". What?

Description:     As part of the efforts geared towards strengthening the failing global economy.
XXXX XXXXXXX Ltd seeks business developers who will proffer business plans and ideas that can be executed to realize and achieve the desired goals.

JOB PURPOSE: To develop and lead implementation of strategies which shape future business delivery and provide the best possible service and information to stakeholders while ensuring compliance with legislation within the Directorate’s responsibilities.


* Business Development Directorate business plan
* Risk Management
* Efficiency measures
* Compliance audits
* Customer satisfaction
* Charter mark criteria met


* Develop a 3-year strategic plan for the Business development Directorate.
* Develop and manage annual business plans identifying key activities, priorities and risks.
* Develop, deliver and evaluate the ILF payment assurance strategy
* Build relationships and manage the delivery of a consultation process with stakeholders in line with future strategies
* Manage the delivery of a revised client service and consultation strategy
* Ensure the Directorate business continuity and recovery requirements are met
* Delivery of the ILF Race Equality Scheme
* Ensure ILF compliance with Data Protection, Freedom of Information Acts
* Improve the ratings of issues on the Risk Register that are owned by the Business Development Directorate


* Relationship management and interpersonal skills
* Communication, influencing and negotiating skills
* Strategy development and Implementation
* Project management
* Presentation skills
* Research and Report writing skills
* Problem solving and decision making
* Change Management
* Coaching & People management
* PC literate with PowerPoint, Excel and Word skills


* Professional and positive approach
* Self motivated
* Strong in building relationships and able to communicate at all levels
* Team player, and able to work on own initiative.
* Dynamic and Creative

ESSENTIAL QUALIFICATIONS: None but graduate level preferred

OTHER DUTIES: Specialist projects as agreed with the CEO to support the business requirements of the organisation. In addition, the Director will be prepared to carry out any other reasonable duties requested by the CEO.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Free Proposal Guide - How to write a proposal

At Learn to Write Proposals we've had a lot of positive comments on our online proposal guide.

It's full of great advice on capture planning, bid management, persuasive writing in a proposal, reviewing the quality of your proposal and much more for when you write a business proposal.

In fact we think that it's so useful that we've pulled together the articles into a downloadable e-book - the Learn to Write Proposals Free Proposal Guide. You can download a copy for free here.

Not only that but very soon we'll be releasing our Extended Proposal Guide with:
  • Over 20 additional sections and topics
  • Extended information, guidance and diagrams on each topic
  • Worksheets and step-by-step guides to get you applying the information to your situation
  • Real examples from real proposals
  • Advice on how to use Learn to Write Proposals to maximise you proposal effectiveness
Make sure you sign up to the Learn to Write Proposals Newsletter to get an update on when it will be released.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Keeping it short

I was listening to an article on radio four on the development of language, particularly in relation to "texting".

There were two things that I found interesting. Firstly, the rise in 160 poetry where poems are created in 160 characters or less.

Secondly, was the rise in Japan of entire stories that can be sent in text messages.

So what has this got to do with anything? Well, if you only have 160 characters to convey a message or a story it makes you think about your words very carefully. Everyone of them has to matter.

So why do so many proposals obviously have so many words that don't matter? Maybe it's time that that the page should be considered valuable real estate and room is strictly limited.

Oh, and if you are interested to see what a 160 poem reads like then your may be interested to know that in 2002 Emma Passmore won £1,500 with this:

I left my pictur on th ground wher u walk
so that somday if th sun was jst right
& th rain didnt wash me awa
u might c me out of th corner of yr i & pic me up

I wonder what a 160 proposal would look like.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How to write a proposal with graphics

Part of the Learn to Write Proposals online proposal guide.

What is the point of a graphic in your business proposal or sales document?

A paper written some time ago in 1986 looked at the way that graphics could be used to enhance the persuasiveness of presentations. The study ( conducted by the University of Minnesota had some interesting findings that not only are applicable to presentations, but really can affect how to write a proposal too..

The report recommended using graphics where you needed to:
  • Increase information density
  • Display multiple dimensions
  • Organize complex issues
  • Support abstract concepts
  • Illustrate trends
The report found that using graphics would improve audience:
  • Attention
  • Comprehension
  • Yielding/Agreement
  • Retention
  • Influence audience action
Lastly, it said that support in colour is more persuasive than that in black and white.

Great, you think, let’s fill our bids and proposals full of colourful graphics and it will have a magical effect on readers. But is it that straightforward? Of course not, but if we can use graphics to help in any of these areas we should, and as the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Graphics will help readers notice, understand and retain your information but it’s important to use them appropriately for them to be effective.

To do that you need to follow some basic do’s and don’ts:
  1. Only use a graphic if it improves your message. Don’t use graphics just for the sake of using graphics.
  2. Use one graphic for each element you are explaining – if it’s a multiple step process you are explaining or a comparison then use graphics side-by-side or in sequence for each element and number each graphic appropriately.
  3. Remember, simple graphics are easier to understand.
  4. Use captions that describe the graphic and the point, or benefit that you are trying to make
  5. Create bespoke graphics for your proposal – don’t use web clip art. Design your required graphic early (when you are preparing the solution) and get them created by a professional graphic designer and incorporate them into your solution – they should never be an afterthought.
  6. Review and improve graphics, just as you would your proposal text.
  7. Insert graphics at the point in the proposal where you have the explanatory text. It makes the page more attractive and provides an easier reference for understanding. Depending on the size of the graphic, put it at the side or after the explanatory text.
    Sometimes RFPs have very constraining response requirements that don't allow graphics in the main proposal body text. This is the only time that graphics should be included at the end of the proposal as an appendix.
  8. Do a test print out early on and ensure they look high-enough quality when printed as well as on screen.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A simple approach to a sales letter

Part of the Learn to Write Proposals online proposal guide.

Treat a sales letter just like any other business proposal, a persuasive piece of writing.

Here is my recommended structure for a letter business proposal:

1. Project objectives (Why do they need your services?)
2. Solution and benefits (What benefits can you offer them?)
3. Scope of services (What will you do for them?)
4. Your responsibilities (What will they do for you? e.g give you office space and a computer...)
5. Duration of engagements (How long is the contract for? Hours/week)
6. Fees and charges (What is you hourly/daily/weekly/monthly rate.)
7. Why Us? (this is some your credentials - past projects. Also highlight your knowledge with the company and the way it works)
8. Terms and conditions (What does it include and what doesn't it
include - e.g. expenses, benefits, employer contributions etc.)
9. Next steps (what do you need them to do and when - a call to action).

Feel free to leave any of these bits out if you don't feel they are appropriate, but as in any business development always try and show that you offer value and make it persuasive. Unless you know that the opportunity is a  100% formality always put some work into your proposal, just in case they ask anyone else to tender (some organisations have to legally, so ask them). It's always worth having a good persuasive sales letter either way.

Don't start your letter proposal with a question. Most clients want to know immediately that you understand their business, not be asked about it...starting with a question to grab attention in sales is used when the salesman doesn't know anything about the client, like when you get called with "would you like to reduce your phone bill..." I bet you don't go much further, right?

When writing a business sales letter instead try and start with the clients name - do your research and make sure you get it right. It show's that you are thinking about them, not just what you have to offer. Then move into what their problem or requirement is followed by how you can solve that problem.

Go on further in your letter to expand on the need/solution and back up with evidence that you can do what you say - evidence of past projects or client testimonials is a great way of doing this. Include any unique selling points that you may have.

Then if you can demonstrate the monetary value that you offer.

Finish up with a call to action and as a last tip add a P.S. - there's statistical evidence that shows that sales letters with a P.S. get better responses.

So, an outline of a sales letter (very short version!) may be something along the lines of:

Dear Dr. Taylor,

The rising cost of publishing and printing yearbooks are causing schools and students to reconsider the most cost-effective way of collecting one of the most important memento's of school life. A Yearbooks R Us, we can provide you with the highest-quality yearbooks with a price guarantee for three years.

[some more about the schools need for yearbooks and your service here - not saying these are the appropriate sales buttons to push, but you get the idea]

We can offer a choice of yearbook styles and will include the cost of design work in with the total order. There are no hidden charges, the price we charge is per book with a minimum order of 50. Additionally, we will provide a 10% discount per book on orders over 100 books.

At Obama High you only want the finest for your students and we can provide that, as we have been doing for over 15 other schools in your area. I have inlcuded a letter from the Principal of Liberty High who has been delighted with our yearbook quality and price for the last five years.

The cost of our books is: [give some clear information on prices here - what are your unique selling points - discounts for volume? holding prices if given a multi year contract? including the design work for free?]

We have a variety of styles and design types of yearbook available and I'm sure you would like to see them. I will call your office on Monday next week in order to arrange a meeting where I can leave you some samples.

Kind regards,

Jane Doe
Yearbooks R Us

P.S. If your place an order before 31st January, then we'll give you an additional 5 books free for your school library.

Persuasive writing in your business proposal

Part of the Learn to Write Proposals online proposal guide.

Too often we write what is easy in our business proposals and sales documents, because we have a product or service that we are very familiar with. It’s easy to say what we can do, how we do it and how much it costs.

We try and sell the features of our solution that are close to use and require little or no effort to obtain.

This is particularly true when dealing with people who typically are inward facing within an organisation or who when outward facing tend to be in a more ‘fact-providing’ role such as project managers, technicians, engineers, software designers. In fact the more technical the person, the more likely it is that their contribution to a proposal writing is going to be driven by detail rather than persuasion. So much that sometimes only someone with the same level of technical expertise can decipher the content.

That’s not to say that in your proposal, there shouldn’t be a place for technical writing. Your solution may be a technical one – for instance, a complex computer system – and this section of the proposal is usually reviewed by qualified technical personnel. But remember that there are other people from a non-technical background reading the proposal too and you need to explain to them what might be self-explanatory to the expert.

Providing factual information is very important in proposals and tender responses to define what it is the client will get. However, in a sales document or proposal we are trying to convince and persuade the client that our proposal is better for them – how does it solve their business need?

In your solution structure think about how best to persuade. Tom Sant has written an excellent book (See the Learn to Write Proposals Bookshop) called ‘Persuasive Business Proposals’ and many people are familiar with consultancy sales training models such as SPIN (situation, problem, implications, needs-payoff questions) that look into the problems and needs of buyers.

In fact, the original research into the SPIN selling model proved that the more successful salespeople were the ones who asked questions about problems and the implications if the problem wasn’t solved.

You aren’t going to ask questions in our bid or proposal – but hopefully you have had a chance to engage with the client before the proposal submission about their needs and problems.

So in your proposal show that you know the customer’s situation, what they need to solve it and (if you know their business well enough) the implications if they don’t. This can be done in a section of the proposal – “Understanding of your requirement”.

Next comes the solution. This is where you are almost certainly going to need the contributions from the factual contributors – often the people who will be delivering the project.

Anyone who writes in a technical or factual manner can make their writing persuasive by adding one small phrase:

 “This will benefit you because…”

The proposal must be about the client, rather than about you.

The important word is because. It’s giving a reason for all the factual information that’s gone before it. It may be you that re-writes these content sections to explicitly outline the benefits to the customer of your solution or it may be you providing the content. Either way think about how you can make it easy for the client to be convinced that your solution will work for them.

So you can explain the solution and give the benefits of that solution. But how do you make the client believe us? You need to demonstrate our credibility. This is where giving examples of past projects, previous clients and testimonials show the client you've done it before which leads them to think that you can do it again. This is providing credibility to your proposed solution - you are providing evidence of your capability.

The last persuader is value. Even if you have the best solution, you still have to demonstrate that it's cost-effective and going to have a positive impact for the client. Even if your product is expensive you need to demonstrate value. To do so, just ask yourself this question:

Is the client better off with your product, or the money that it costs to buy it?

If the answer is the money, you're in trouble! Think about this of the commonest reasons for not winning a contract is price (too expensive), but very rarely does anyone win because they were cheap. They win because they offered the best value. There's more on customer value in our proposal guide.

This is not just selling the features of a solution, but selling the
benefits; then persuading the client by providing a solution and backing it
up with evidence that you can deliver and being credible in your price as
well as reputation.

Persuasion is what will win you the work, so ensure that you have these key elements in your executive summary too.

Solution + credibility + value = persuasion.