How to write powerful proposals that win you business

Although any form of business writing should be benefits-led, with proposals it often doesn’t pay to be too blatant about “what’s in it for them.” To head such a document with a line that says “back my suggestions for a new company gymnasium and your promotion prospects could be enhanced” might be true, but you won’t score many points by rubbing readers’ noses in the fact. Benefits to the reader should be strongly implied rather than spelled out.

Don’t be intimidated by format constraints

Some proposals need to follow set formats – either those of your own organization, those decreed by institutions (e.g. public sector tenders), or those decreed by etiquette like, for example, business plans. Even with the latter category, the etiquette for which was developed by bankers and accountants and management consultants and other noble professionals not normally known for their creative writing skills, you can still write in a way that grabs and holds readers’ attention. The trick is not to be intimidated by the formality of such formats. By all means stick to the defined sequence and format, but that needn’t stop you writing simple, clear stuff that’s benefits led.

People are people, even when wearing expensive suits and stern faces

Always remember that no matter how faceless and terrifying you imagine business angels or venture capitalists or senior civil servants might be, they’re all human beings who react in a human way to human words. In fact if anything they will warm to good, clear, strong, human writing (provided the proposal itself is valid) rather more than they will to the long-winded, boring, stuffy prose they probably have to wade through in 95% of cases.

Make sure the structure is solid

Another key issue with proposals is getting the structure right. Assuming you don’t have a set format to follow and you can choose your own way forward, it’s worth remembering that some if not all of the people who will read your document haven’t got much time to spare. Even if they have, they’re likely to want to move swiftly on from a business document to the sports page of the newspaper or an e-mail from a friend. So no matter how much detail you and your colleagues feel should be included to substantiate your proposal, keep that in the back and focus the front on the key points.

In fact try to get the key points of the whole story into one page, using subsequent pages for expansion. Your readers will be grateful to obtain the gist of your proposal quickly, and assuming the rest of the proposal makes good sense that will place you in the front line for a “yes.”

Create a logical flow

Staying with the structure issue, it’s also important to work out the flow of the content so that your information and your argument are presented in a logical way. This is not as challenging as it sounds.  Once again, assuming you’re not obliged to follow set procedures it pays to forget whatever old-fashioned precedents may exist and trust your instincts. Provided that you have informed yourself thoroughly about the people who will be reading your proposal, your instincts will tell you what they will want to know, what elements of it will really ring their chimes, and in what order. If the audience is diverse (e.g. some management, some finance, some technical) you can attach their individual categories of detail as appendices, keeping the central flow of the document focused on the main issues that are common to all. That makes it much more powerful.

Write simply in an informal “tone of voice”

Finally, whatever you do don’t think that because you’re writing a business proposal the style has to be dry, dull and boring. Especially if you know the people who will be reading it (but even if you don’t) be informal and use friendly, natural language.

My old boss years ago – one of the best direct response copywriters the UK has ever seen – used to say that the right tone of voice for good sales copy is as if you were standing next to the reader, chatting to him or her in a pub. 

With business proposals I suppose we should forget the pub, but I believe they should be written in the same tone of voice as if you were talking to the reader over a cup of coffee at an informal meeting. One of the great advantages of written communication is that people don’t have to live up to their external images when they’re reading it. Even if they’re pompous, conceited bigots in company, when they’re alone they’re just like you and me.

That means they are likely to respond better, in private, to informal, straightforward, honest words than they are – ironically – to the sort of elaborate garbage they themselves speak and write to others. It helps to remember that point when you’re writing anything for business, and especially when you’re writing in a politically upwards rather than sideways or downwards direction.

And now for some more help with your business proposals:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English