Three steps to success in proposal writing

Throughout 10 years I have worked with proposals. Rewriting chapters and especially executive summaries, managing the process, designing proposal materials and shaping as well as coaching the team for the presentation. 

I am not the typical Bid Manager type with my degree in communications and creative skills. As it turned out, that background combined with an interest in business and sales made me a unique and strong asset for the companies I worked for. And it is the backbone of the business I run today.


It’s all in the process

There will be no great proposal without a process, that starts out defining key messages. I deliberately don’t call it value propositions, since I have seen a wide range of those, in an equally wide range of quality. Some don’t even entail value. They are pure statements or a copy of the client objectives. So, moving from value propositions to messages you move from a claim to something which consists of value and is catchy as well. And this boils down to a basic element in proposals that are often forgotten. A proposal should be a good read. Let’s just pause here for a second. Think about it. Are your proposals a good read? Really?


It is time consuming to make a great proposal. Unfortunately, in Denmark I see a trend in shortening RFP processes or sending them out just before summer/Christmas breaks with a deadline shortly after. And perhaps even a presentation a few days after submission. To me that is just plain stupid. RFP’s will be mainly copy pasted and stressed out work made by whoever is available. Presentations will be poorly prepared, and the client will not get a proper impression of the vendors. Since these contracts sometimes last 2-5 years I see this as a pure loser’s game for all.


With that said: With a proper proposal process you should always start out defining the key messages before you fill in content. This is the tricky part, because most companies I know start out finding a previous proposal that seems similar and then start rewriting directly in that. That will never transform into a well written proposal tailored to your client’s needs. It will always remain what it is, standardized content with a change in client name. 


I am not saying you can’t reuse. You can. As long as you create your structure based on key messages first. Then you find previous written material that matches and reuse it.


In a simple form you can define it as a tree step process. First you define your messages. Then you structure your story before you fill in the content.


Proposal writing process 


Defining key messages

These messages hold their root in the client’s needs, add value and they are short and simple. I always use the message house, which is a classic marketing tool to define messages to a specific target group.A message house has three rooms. It leaves you with three one sentence messages, proofs of your message and a statement adding a bit more words to your message, explaining how your services match their needs and the value it brings.


In the image below notice how the client needs define the foundation of your messages. This is where you start building your house. Bundle all the client needs and objectives into three. Having these as a foundation is how you constantly make sure, all that you write has relevance to the client. 

Message House

Once you have bundled the needs you give it a heading. That is your message. A message could be something like: “A solid foundation for your future”. Even if I have used this type of message many times in different proposals, the statement and proofs are always different and specific to the company using it. The message itself does not have to be uniquely written as long as you have proofs to support it and it matches the client needs. 


Proofs are solid data, quotes, cases etc. that helps you explain why and how you can solve what you claim.

The overarching pitch captures the entire house. It is like a short pitch in one to two sentences. Crisp and clear. I often end the roof pitch with a sentence that becomes my tagline. 


Structure a story

Once your messages are clear you use them to structure your proposal. If allowed in the RFP, consider your index page as a story with a beginning a middle and an end. Your headings should reflect your key messages and the structure should define your story. 


Yes, you did read it right. Index pages matter. Everybody looks through the index page, looking for the specific chapter they want to read. Why not use that chance to make them all aware of your key messages?

As you have defined the index page, you add the key messages and statements to the chapters where they belong. 


Write & design

Now you can start to create content. Tell stories and use imagery like infographics, text boxes, metaphors and examples. It all eases the read and helps highlight your key messages. 


Write in active language instead of passive. Use short sentences and informal language. What matters most here is, that you match your style to your client. It goes without saying that you write in formal language if you speak and behave formally with the client. 


Have someone to read through what you have written. They can help you shorten your sentences, take out all the fillers and proof read the grammar. 


A proposal is often written by several people. Have one person rewrite it to align language and style. And if you have the time, get help from designers to redesign your tables and graphs. It gives a nice impression if they are all aligned in style, perhaps even cleaned up from too much text. And you can reuse them in your presentation. 


Now that you have reached out to designers, make them help you with the front page. The front page should communicate your key messages. And have imagery that connects the client to your key messages. Perhaps even a tagline that makes the reader curious to start turning the pages? You can always add the title of the RFP underneath the tagline in a smaller font.


A captivating front page will make your proposal stand out before it is even read. 

Good luck with your proposal writing.


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