What a proposal is and what a proposal does
There are two fundamental considerations for every proposal: what goes into it and how it’s presented.
Every project proposal contains at least some of these elements, though not necessarily in this order: cover letter, title page, table of contents, credentials and qualifications, statement of the problem and rationale for undertaking the job, goal(s) and supporting objectives, plan of operation, work or product measurement and evaluation, summary, cost, and appendices. How you organize, write, and deliver your proposal is essential to its success.
A proposal is nothing more than a tool that you use to get an assignment. It should not be a blueprint for doing the job. After all, you certainly don’t want to give away everything you know in your proposal so that your potential client or supervisor can simply pick it up and hand it over to someone else to implement. There is often a fine line between telling what you plan to do and telling how you plan to do it. The most effective proposals march boldly up to that line…and stop.
Summarize up front
Begin your proposal with an executive summary, preferably one that’s no more than one page in length. Obviously, it’s much easier to write the summary after the proposal is complete; doing so at the outset generally means extra work making revisions later on. In all likelihood your direction will change somewhat as you construct the document’s various parts.
The summary is not a substitute for the proposal itself. Rather, it is a quick and concise reference to what the proposal contains. Sometimes called an abstract, outline, or précis, the summary is a condensed statement of what the full proposal contains. During a personal presentation, it is useful both as an introduction and a wrap-up. Later on if it becomes necessary to return to the proposal for clarification of certain points, the summary serves as a convenient memory jogger. For these reasons you might consider using bulleted points when formatting your summary.
A word about organizing
Before actually starting to write any part of your proposal, think about what you want to put into it-and what you prefer to leave out. A logical, sequential construction becomes an outline that enables you to move through your oral presentation smoothly and thoroughly, developing both your narrative and your qualifications for the job as you go.
As you organize your thoughts, make notes of what you need to include and then sort them into the order in which you intend to address each one during the presentation meeting with your client or supervisor. It’s best to sort like with like. That is, don’t mix company and departmental backgrounds or personal biographies, credentials, and references with your plan of action. Place such support and historical material-evidence of your capabilities-after the plan that you are suggesting.
Because it tells your understanding of the project and states that you are the right person, department, or company to do the job, the cover letter is the most important element of the proposal; it is also the very last item to prepare before you make your presentation. Keep it short, no more than one page. State the problem in a sentence or two and tell what you intend to do about it. Don’t forget to express your appreciation for the opportunity to submit your proposal.
Do not bind your letter into the proposal itself. It’s all right to clip it to the cover or insert it into an inside pocket of a folder, but it should be loose so that as you begin your presentation, the recipient can hold it in his or her hand.
Print the letter on letterhead, preferably a heavy sheet that has a good feel. Address it to your primary contact, the person with whom you will work and to whom you will report. Always sign the letter. You may use your first or full name; it depends upon how personally close you are to the addressee. Don’t be presumptuous in making that decision, however; it’s safer to err on the side of formality than to presume a familiarity that isn’t really there.
The problem and the plan
The primary section of the proposal describes the problem or project as you see it. That bears repeating: State your understanding of the need and circumstances that prompted your submitting the proposal. Explain the rationale for action. That is, tell your audience what their problem is and why they need your expertise and assistance. Don’t assume they know. Define the scope of the undertaking and the solutions and goals you intend to achieve, describing each in terms of discrete objectives.
Take care to avoid inadvertently implying commitments for actions other than those specifically stated within your plan. Don’t, for example, allow an inference to be drawn that you will supply certain materials, personnel, documentation, training, or ongoing support if you do not intend to do so. Likewise, be cautious during your presentation about committing to oral agreements that are not contained in the written proposal. It is perfectly acceptable-even advisable-to outline both your obligations and those of the individual or company to whom you are submitting your proposal. Better to discuss and agree upon such items at the time of the proposal presentation than to face misunderstandings down the road.
Because the plan portion represents the meat of your proposal, it should summarize your strategy clearly and include time lines, opportunities for feedback, and provisions both for periodic evaluations and measurement of the end result. Two-way communications are extremely important to the success of most projects and, for that reason, should be built into each procedure and objective. Routine reports and approvals, explicitly provided for within your proposal, will help keep communications open and allay possible concerns during the course of the project. If your project must conform to regulatory standards, tell exactly how tests and verifications will occur. And if time or other constraints are prescribed by outside parties, describe the process you will use to satisfy those requirements.
As you lay out your plan, try to keep in mind a couple of questions that your audience may not ask but will certainly be thinking: “What can we expect as a minimum outcome of your work?” and “What steps will you follow, and how will we know you (and we) are on target?”
The first relates to the project’s overall goal. If you are clear in your written and oral presentations, your audience will know precisely what accomplishments they can expect to see upon completion of the project. The second question is a little more difficult to answer because you may wish to state incremental and final results without fully revealing your methodology and procedures. Your client or supervisor needs to know what to expect of course. But describing each and every step of your performance may be overkill and, in some cases, could actually jeopardize your winning the contract or assignment.
The rest of the story
Graphs, charts, line drawings, time lines, and other illustrations help convey information quickly and logically. Include them in your proposal in ways you think they would best clarify and complement the text, being careful not to separate them physically from the material to which they relate. That is, don’t place illustrative items in the appendix because that encourages flipping pages back and forth as you are trying to present your case.
If the proposal is more than 10 pages long, include a page-specific table of contents as a guide for the reader.
After describing the problem and plan that are the bases for your proposal, follow those portions with references; biographies of the principals who will be involved in the task; a client and project list; credentials, licenses, and certifications; perhaps a glossary of terms; a list of illustrations; and any other supporting information.
What’s all this going to cost?
More often than not, when you hand a group of people a printed proposal to follow as you make your presentation, someone is bound to turn immediately to the last page to check your cost estimate. Don’t put it there.
Because cost is only one element of any proposal-along with time, quality of work and materials, and benefits to be derived from the project-present it as such and put it into your plan where it most logically fits. If you choose to indicate individual item costs throughout the proposal, don’t forget to include a recap page with complete tallies.
Express costs in terms of value rather than simply stating them as prices. That is, mention that a particular component or service may seem expensive, but you have included it because it is the most cost effective course to take and will save money in the long run. By raising the issue yourself, you indicate your expertise and professionalism while deflating potential resistance.
Similarly, if you encounter strong objections to the total cost, ask which parts of the proposal your audience thinks may be beyond its budget. Be prepared for some on-the-spot negotiations that will enable you to eliminate or make substitutions for items that are not deemed essential by your client or supervisor. Going into a proposal presentation without knowledge of alternatives is extremely disadvantageous for you and makes you appear unprepared.
Watch your language
Nothing kills proposals faster than poor or careless writing. No matter how impressive your technical knowledge, familiarity with the field, or track record, a sloppily prepared proposal can doom your chances for success. Thoughtless and incomplete preparation or an untidy printed proposal reflects negatively on your ability to do the job, suggesting that you may be equally neglectful in your work.
Try to avoid using jargon, acronyms, and insider terms. Instead of making you sound more intelligent and knowledgeable, they can obstruct the communications process and produce a contrary effect. For example, although you feel sure your audience knows what you’re talking about, there is always the chance that one member of the group reviewing your proposal may misunderstand an expression. Or perhaps he or she may simply never have heard a particular term and is reluctant to ask for clarification. Unbeknownst to you, that person may be someone who ultimately has a strong influence over whether your proposal is accepted or rejected.
Write conversationally. Brief but complete should be your goal. Even if your subject is highly technical, imagine that the person to whom you are writing is sitting across the table from you as you write and you are speaking directly to him or her. We’re all a little more careful-more formal-when we write than when we speak, but it serves no good purpose to use flowery language and unnecessarily obscure or pretentious terminology. If there is any doubt whatsoever in your mind that a word or phrase might be misunderstood or foreign to your audience, define it. Those persons who are already familiar with the term will not be offended. Write in complete sentences as much as possible, even when listing numbered or bulleted points.
Be aware that there may be a hidden audience whom you never see or even know about who reads your proposal after you have made your presentation; the CFO or comptroller who ultimately approves all invoices might be an example. Will that person(s) understand every point it contains without hearing you explain, “What that really means is this…”? Also remember that portions of the text may be read aloud. If a member of your audience asks, “What is our duty here where it says…,” he or she should be able to read the passage smoothly without stumbling over a series of stilted phrases or hard-to-pronounce words or sounds.
Keep your writing professional in tone without being stuffy. Although your reading audience may consist entirely of close associates, that doesn’t mean your proposal can be dashed off like a personal note, full of slang and familiarities. Remember as well that English may not be the first language of everyone who listens to your presentation or reads your proposal. If the circumstance is important enough to call for a formal proposal, it requires a professional level of attention.
Some proposal writers know their field forward, backward, and sideways but are unable to express themselves well in print. If that’s your situation, ask for help in writing your proposal. It’s always better to collaborate with a competent writer than to risk losing the assignment.
Every word processing system includes a spell checker; it’s there to be used. But don’t depend upon it exclusively; proofread your work before submitting it. The best way to do that is to allow the proposal to sit for a day or two and then to read it aloud. You might also want to ask an associate to go over it before you make your presentation.
Unplating the boiler
Many proposal writers pick up previously written standard wording-often called boilerplate-for portions of their proposals. There’s certainly nothing wrong with such a practice. It saves time and eliminates errors…or does it?
Unless every proposal that goes out of your office is carefully read before it leaves, there is the danger that gremlins will find their way into your document. Boilerplate that contains spaces for different insertions to be filled in as each new proposal is written is particularly accident prone. Failure to change just one ABC Widget Company before submitting a proposal to the XYZ Widget Company can destroy your entire presentation. Not only is it an embarrassing mark of carelessness, but it also may reveal far more about your business than you care to have known.
Boilerplate has a limited shelf life. It grows stale and out of date before you realize it. Absolutely no less often than every six months you should review each one of the sections that you routinely include with your proposals. Don’t rely upon an assistant to do this job for you because he or she may not have sufficiently current knowledge. Also, it’s you who are going to make the presentation to your client or supervisor, and, therefore, it’s you who will need to explain erroneous, incomplete, or perhaps even confidential information that somehow crept into your proposal.
Requests for proposals (RFP)
Although your firm or department over the years may have developed a format for preparation of bids and proposals, it is sometimes necessary that you adapt your design. Requests for proposals (RFP) issued by large corporations or governmental agencies often require that each proposal conform to their very specific formats.
It is to your distinct advantage to follow all the instructions that are available, especially if you must submit your proposal by mail and will not have the opportunity to make a personal presentation. Standard form RFPs enable reviewers to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. If a reader must hunt through your document in order to find a critical point, he or she may instead prefer to toss the document aside. After all, the reviewer may think, if this person can’t even follow our directions, how can we expect a satisfactory outcome from the project?
When responding to an RFP, read the guidelines carefully and highlight each qualifying instruction. Make a list of the requirements and check off each one as you complete it. Don’t include more information than is requested unless it is absolutely vital to your submission and you have included a full explanation in your cover letter. Likewise, if you are unable to complete all sections of the RFP, include a full explanation of why certain parts are missing. Submit your proposal in its complete and finished form; piecemeal submissions create bad impressions.
Show and tell
Resist, even to the point of seeming obstreperous, all requests to “just mail it to us.” Anything short of a face-to-face meeting will inevitably detract from your proposal. After all, your proposal is meant to sell more than your services; it also sells you.
When the day arrives for your presentation, make sure that all the decision makers will be in attendance. Call ahead the day before and ask whether anyone will not be present. If you know their names, read the list to your primary contact. Because missing persons might later receive the actual attendees’ interpretation of the meeting in place of your carefully planned presentation, it is best to have everyone in the same room at the same time. If that doesn’t seem to be feasible, ask to reschedule the presentation date until all concerned can attend. Ten o’clock in the morning is usually the most opportune time for an hour-and-a-half to two-hour meeting; Friday afternoon is the least favorable.
Because we live in an imperfect world, there will indeed be times when you won’t reach every decision maker simultaneously. You may have to re-present your proposal to those persons who were unable to be present the first time around, or you may have to rely upon secondhand presentations from those to whom you spoke originally.
In the first case, try to vary your presentation style somewhat from the initial meeting. Some of the previous group may be present, and if you run through your proposal the same way you did the first time, you may sound canned and flat. A fresh approach is much more likely to hold the interest of everyone in the room.
If your presentation is going to be relayed to other persons by a member of the initial audience, make certain that person thoroughly understands every word you say. Ask if he or she would like any additional information to help with the later retelling of your plan.
Where do I start?
After initial pleasantries are out of the way, start your presentation with your cover letter. It’s your personal introduction to your audience, evidence that you understand the need for the project you are describing, and your statement that you are the right person or company to do the job. Call attention to the letter, physically take it from the proposal-remember, it should not be bound into the proposal itself-and hold it in both hands in front of you. That’s the cue for everyone else in the room to do likewise. They’ll do it if you do it.
Without reading the letter aloud, invite your audience to follow the text as you paraphrase and recap what the letter says. Ask for comments and either respond briefly to them or say that you will discuss their questions later as you reach those points in your presentation. Quickly jot down a note so that you don’t forget to do so.
After determining that you have the attention of everyone present and there are no obstructions to proceeding, lead the group into the summary of your plan. Again, recap the points you intend to cover and ask for questions, responding in the same way as above.
Keeping the group together is sometimes difficult but always necessary. Just one person who insists upon leafing through the pages and making off-the-point comments and observations can quickly disrupt the flow of your presentation. You might ask him or her to make notes of items for clarification so that you can address each one at the conclusion of your presentation.
As you move through your presentation, speak conversationally to those around you. Remember that you are not lecturing to a university class or speaking to a Rotary Club. Your presentation is a business process-even though you may be demonstrating your technical know-how-and you are endeavoring to win a contract or an assignment. It won’t be possible for you to perform as an expert-the person or company right for this job-unless you receive the go-ahead from your audience. Much more depends at this point upon your ability to express how you intend to apply your expertise than what that expertise actually is.
Lead, don’t read. Do not read to your listeners what they have before them on the printed page and are perfectly capable of reading themselves. Instead, rephrase, paraphrase, and elaborate as you describe the text in terms of concepts, procedures, and strategy. Before beginning your presentation, mark up a copy of your proposal with comments and amplifications of important points. Be cautious, however, about expanding on a topic in such a way that you commit yourself to actions outside the scope of your proposal.
If you choose to use a flip chart, PowerPoint, overhead or slide projector, VCR, computer screen, or some other demonstration aid, practice ahead of time so that your presentation proceeds smoothly. And, of course, check your equipment before the meeting to see that it is functioning properly. In the event you run into trouble with your display tools, don’t take more than a minute or so trying to make corrections or you’ll lose your audience. Instead, be prepared to proceed without audio/visual assistance.
Obstructions and distractions
It’s not unusual for differing opinions and disagreements-sometimes even confrontations-to surface during proposal presentations. Known or unknown to you may be someone in your audience who previously presented or sponsored a similar proposal that was rejected. There may be congenital naysayers who distrust innovation or change of any kind. There may be one or two persons who adopt a show-me! attitude and refuse to believe that an idea worth listening to could ever come from (pick one) an insider, outsider, field representative, corporate staff person, woman, man, engineer, marketing specialist, or…fill in the blank.
All is not lost, however. Obstructionists can be very useful during your presentation because they raise issues and objections that you can effectively respond to and neutralize-especially when you’re prepared to do so. Without overplaying or pandering to a troublesome member of your audience, accept criticism appreciatively and graciously and build upon it, emphasizing the positive points you are presenting.
Watch your audience as you speak. Is there someone who frequently seems on the verge of posing a question but then withdraws? Does one person repeatedly challenge your statements? Is there anyone who seems detached and uninterested while another vigorously nods each time you introduce a new detail? Are you boring them or engaging them? Adjust your pace and speaking style accordingly and direct some of your comments to specific individuals, referring to them by name. Later quote their responses back to the group as part of your presentation.
The importance of packaging
Contrary to what we might like to believe, people do buy books by their covers. Neatness and eye appeal count. A proposal that is hard to handle or is not professional in appearance detracts from the presenter, his or her firm or department, and the overall plan. A few extra hours spent on making the written proposal look good can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Keep it simple. Use good quality paper stock-something with a high rag content has the best feel-and avoid colored papers. Rather than highlight, they tend to distract. Stick to 8½” x 11″ size and fold flow charts, schematics, organizational charts, graphs, and other illustrations within the proposal itself. Larger sheets are difficult to file and quickly become dog-eared, a tattered appearance that will make your entire proposal look bad. If you are using large plans and drawings, list them as coded illustrations within the text of your proposal and submit them as separate exhibits.
Laser print your document using an easy-to-read typeface. Serif type is much more readable than sans serif. Ten-point is probably a large enough type size unless you know that one or more reviewers has difficulty reading small print-then go up to 11- or 12-point. Don’t justify (align) the right-hand margin of your text. True, it looks neater, but it is much harder to read, especially if your printer leaves gaping spaces between words.
Stay away from artsy typefaces and fonts and complicated page layouts. More often than not they only confuse the reader. Many proposal writers nowadays use formatting or desktop publishing programs for page design. Unless you are familiar with page makeup techniques, though, it’s best to leave that kind of design to the professionals. And exercise some restraint in using charts and graphs to illustrate every individual item you describe. Sometimes a clearly written explanation works better than a graphic that you had to strain to create.
Break up gray pages of solid type with bullets and lists that draw the reader’s eye to important points. Keep margins fairly wide (1½” is sufficient) to enable your audience to make notes. Number the pages so that you can easily direct your listeners to particular information.
Your proposal is a business document. Don’t stick it into a drugstore folder that makes it look like a term paper. Stapling a half dozen or fewer pages together is all right; if the whole document runs longer than that, place it in an appropriately sized three-ring notebook or add stiff front and back covers and bind it. Three-ring, spiral, and plastic comb bindings are inexpensive and allow the book to lie flat when opened.
“One for you, and one for you…”
When you step into the meeting at which you are scheduled to make your presentation to a five-person group and find seven people waiting for you, don’t panic because you only brought along five copies of your proposal. Instead, anticipate the problem and take extra copies.
“You don’t mind that I’ve asked Chris and Martie to sit in with us, do you?” shouldn’t rattle you if you’re prepared. Of course you mind. But there isn’t much you can do about it. Run off a few additional copies of your proposal and take them with you. Asking two or more persons to share a copy is counterproductive.
The purpose of the proposal
Your proposal is a sales tool and should be used as such. It is a declaration of what you plan to do for your client or your supervisor as well as confirmation that you are the right person, department, or company to undertake the project. It should be well thought out, clearly written, adequately illustrated, and professionally presented. Anything less diminishes your chances of obtaining the job. No matter how competent you are and capable of doing the work, the simple truth is that you may not get the opportunity to demonstrate your skills if you prepare and present a proposal that fails to speak well of you.