John Trimble, in his classic Writing with Style, attributes most bad writing to the writer’s tendency to “think primarily of himself and thus to write primarily for himself.”
I would agree. And this goes for bad proposal writing, too.
We sit down to write a proposal with our mind full of thoughts about ourselves: How can I win this? What is our fee going to be? Why don’t they ever give me a chance? We’re as good as—no, we’re better than—that company that always wins these things.
When your head is cluttered with those thoughts, and you’re staring at a proposal deadline, you may feel forced to choose between two paths.
Choice one, you grab some boilerplate copy. Boilerplate is already-written copy that feels time-tested and safe. So you open a similar proposal and copy and paste. You can fill up the pages fast that way, and end the pain as soon as possible.
Choice two, you start writing what you know by heart. “Our company was established in 1947 with three employees. More than 65 years of steady growth led to our being selected in 2014 as one of the top 500 firms in the country.” Ho hum. This is a yawner for the prospect to have to read.
Ah, the prospect! That’s the problem with both of those choices. Neither writes to the audience—the prospect. Both approaches end up with words that are meaningless to the prospect. It’s what author and proposal expert Tom Sant calls fluff. Worthless words that pad the proposal. But they don’t help the proposal win because the reader, your audience, suffers silently until she can check off the boxes and get to the next losing proposal.
So the key to compelling proposal content is to stop churning out fluff. It’s time to become a WRITER. And anyone reading this can be a writer—Here’s how.
Get the Facts.
If you’re feeling lost or have nothing worthwhile to say, you probably need some concrete facts. So your first objective when you start to write a proposal is to get the facts. Facts lead to good content, which is the foundation of good writing.
What kind of facts? You could start with the journalist’s key questions. Who? (who is my audience). What? (what are they hoping to accomplish?) When? (how soon do they want it?) Why? (why this project? why now?) Where? How? (how do they want it done?). Your number one weapon in the planning stage is the ability to ask questions.
Ask questions, and don’t stop asking.
For example, when you are told your company has a QA/QC process and there’s boilerplate about it, ask if the company actually follows it. Does it work? Have any big mistakes ever been caught by it that saved the client money? These questions can dig up pure gold.
Read the RFP!
You must read the RFP twice. I am surprised how often I’m the expert in the room simply because I actually read the RFP. Not only will you discover what the prospect expects as far as the requirements of the proposal, but there will be clues as to why they want this project accomplished. Look for those clues.
Serve the audience.
Once you have an understanding of the opportunity and the audience, make sure you help the audience by how you write. Don’t use industry jargon, especially if the client is not an industry insider. Even if he or she is an insider, the lack of jargon will make your proposal sound fresh and new. Continue to visualize your audience. If it helps, post a photo of the prospect or a printout of the company’s homepage beside your computer. You want to remind yourself of who will be reading this.
Work hard to write clearly.
Good writing is easy to read but hard to write. Read your copy aloud. Does it sound stilted? Are you speaking to the audience about their wants and dreams and fears? Or are you bragging about yourself or getting lost in ponderous prose?
Present the ideas in various ways.
If you have a picture or a chart that illustrates what you’re trying to say, use it. If you are trying to say a lot about several items, break it out into a table.
Next time we’ll look at five more ways to improve your proposal writing. If you only do steps one and two, you’re well on your way to being a more confident and better writer.