Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Writing business propsoals with unique selling points

I recently reviewed Can I Change Your Mind? The Craft and Art of Persuasive Writing by Lindsay Camp - a book that's as enjoyable as it is useful.

One of the things that Camp mentions is that in marketing messages there is always the hunt for a unique selling point or USP. Yet, there might not always be one. You can have a perfectly good product, that works well, is efficient and has a good price - but your competition may have something very similar.

It's the same in proposals. We look for that competitive edge  and differentiators to create win themes in our proposal. But sometimes we can put pressure on ourselves to come up with something completely unique that actually...might not be so unique. Perhaps you aren't the only organisation that has a 24-hour UK call centre or a 10-year guarantee or providing shocking-pink high-visibility vests for construction workers (USPs aren't always going to get you more business by themselves).

Camp talks instead about a "competitive promise" - factors that will help change the client's mind. Start off with your single strongest claim and tell the story of why it matters - what difference will it make to them.

Don't dismiss USPs if you have them, but it's worth thinking as well about what are the combinations of factors - that may including "softer" or people related factors that would make clients choose you rather than the competition when you write your business proposal.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Learn to Write Proposals book review: Can I Change Your Mind? The Craft and Art of Persuasive Writing by Lindsay Camp

This is a fun and informative book, one that gives good, sensible advice from someone with years of experience yet dispensed in an informal way that makes some of the more humorous parts feel as they've been told to you by the office sage over a pint after work has finished on Friday afternoon.

I'm not trying to put it down in an intellectual sense; in fact I literally didn't put it down until I'd finished reading it. If you've read some of my other book reviews you'll realise that I like books that are accessible. Ones that give you quality information but not in a stuffy academic manner. When I write proposals I want my message to be easily understood, not overcomplicated. And that's how I like my books. I like this one.

Camp separates his book into three sections: Persuasive Principles; A Persuasive Writing A- Z; and Persuasive Words at Work.

The first section isn't a how-to, but it is a valuable explanation of what persuasive writing is and what it should do. Camp bases it around his guiding theory of the "Three Rs of Persuasive Writing":
Remember the Reader and the Result

It's good advice and Camp even explains his understanding of the readership of this book. Not one that you may have thought. He specifically says he doesn't expect his reader to be someone who is a persuasive writing professional - rather it is anyone who wants to communicate better through the written word. He also encourages you to never lose what you want the end result of your writing to be.

The A - Z section falls somewhere between a catalogue of tips relating to section one and a style guide. If you are like me, you'll find some of the embedded examples very funny. I loved this one:


Never use a word unless you're 100% certain of its meaning. We've all been tempted to do it - to make ourselves sounds more grandiloquent and meretricious.

But it nearly always turns out crapulously.

Camp doesn't mind saying it the way he calls it, which is usually very funny. He even manages a little dig at Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss - explaining that there's "no room for pedantry in relation to punctuation - or anything else". 

Personally, I don't mind this dig. Whereas I read this book in one go, I find Eats, Shoots and Leaves totally unreadable and completely self-defeating in any aims to improve the quality of writing and communication. How many of you bought that book and never finished it, never mind not learning anything from it?

Back to Can I Change Your Mind? The last section is a stroll through camps creative and writing process. He's not trying to give a magic formula, but rather a realistic insight in what it's like to work as a creative writer and how you might be able to use the information in your writing.

There's another theme throughout the book. One of the very things that make it readable, and that's rhythm. Camp explains and demonstrates with examples how words become more readable with good rhythm. He gives us a phrase:

Trousers for women
Trousers for men

and asks us to say them aloud, and then say them the other way round. Camp explains that the more satisfying way is as written because it ends on a stressed syllable. Try it. It works. Every time.

But the best example of the rhythm of writing, writing that's easy to read, that flows, that makes sense without overwhelming the reader is the book itself. It's clever, but not too clever for its own good and has a lot of tips that I believe will make an instant impact on anyone’s writing.

It's a good read...even if you don't write. All in all, a Learn to Write Proposals recommended read.

Buy it now from Amazon: Can I Change Your Mind? The Craft and Art of Persuasive Writing

Monday, May 18, 2009

Proposal writing and relationships

When you write a proposal how much contact do you have with the organisation that it's been submitted to?

Perhaps you are the Account Manager, in charge of the account and the bid. But perhaps you are a software developer asked to contribute to an important part of the bid, yet have no real connection with the client. In this case the client seems a long way off: Software Developer-Bid Team-Account Manager-Client.

It may be that the developer writes some really good technical input into the proposal, but the chances are they won't unless they are really brought into the bid team and feel as if they are part of the proposal development.

In an ideal world when writing business proposals it would be great to have all the bid team meet with their counterparts at the client organisation so they can see and understand first hand how things need to fit together. Then a co-ordinated response can be developed, with everyone singing off the same hymn sheet (or at least from the same executive summary).

Even if this level of commitment isn't possible - and we have all been in situations where members of the extended proposal team simply don't have the time to spend as long as we'd like on a proposal - there are other ways of bringing these team members closer to the bid. Put yourself in their shoes; you are busy doing project work and someone you maybe don't know very well asks for your help in writing some content about something. You don't have much time, you don't really know what it's about and so you get it done, out of the way and back onto your project.

So how do you involve these important people in your tender response without costing them a lot of time? Easy. Get them to come to a short proposal kick-off meeting, where the big picture is explained. Send them emails about the proposal from the client. Ask them for their help on the solution, not just to write up a section on an already decided solution. If it's possible, give them direct access to the client to ask questions - it removes those degrees of separation that exist.

There are ways of getting your proposal team not just involved, but truly committed to your proposals. Treat people like they are an afterthought and that's exactly what you'll get back from them for your proposal.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Expenses and proposals

So as we look on at the train wreck of MPs expenses, let's ask ourselves why we are all fed up.

OK - these are publicly elected officials that appear to have been creating their own little secret club with many perks.

There are lots of questions. Why are these things not taxed as perks? Why if you were so busy, did everyone seem to manage to claim too much on their expenses, was there anyone who under claimed? When I'm busy, I'm not claiming anything...they are the last thing I get around to doing. And just because a rule allows something, doesn't mean that rule has to be exploited does it? Where does an individual's sense of right and wrong step in?

OK - what's this to do with a proposals blog?

Expenses to most people are reimbursable costs that they initially pay out of their own pocket before claiming back, not a series of entitlements. This is what you would expect as an employer and as a client organisation you also have a right to know what constitutes reasonable expenses.

When working on a project you have occasional expenses outside the core costs of your business - transportation, accommodation, hospitality etc. But are these the cost of doing business or are they extra for the project? Do you list probable expenses as an additional cost in your proposal or absorb them into your standard business overheads?

I've submitted proposals where outside of the financials I've said something along the lines that expenses will be charged for necessary travel and associated costs that occur due to this project, usually providing an estimate and saying that they won't exceed this. The Project Manager is responsible for keeping track of the evidence and submitting this to the clients for reimbursement.

I've never had a client have a problem with this, but I used to have a client whose policy was to charge a 20% administration charge on all expenses. Clients generally raised an eyebrow at this, because just like MPs it looks as if you are trying to profit from expenses. In this case the business calculated that the costs of processing expense reports was around 20% of the cost of the expenses, so they weren't profiting, just ensuring they didn't lose money.

But some things are the cost of doing business and businesses want to know they are receiving good value. Having the appearance of trying to make money doesn't build trust and good faith. It's important that throughout every aspect of your proposal what you are communicating and the impact (positive, negative, financial) is clearly discernable from the information you have provided.

It's a lesson that some members of parliament are going to learn the hard way - perception is reality. So make the perception of your submissions clear, explicit and fair. If you don't you may win one piece of work, but I bet you'll never work with that client again.