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Take the torture out of Proposal Writing

Do proposals bug you?  Here’s some advice to help smooth them away!

A Winning Proposition:

Tips on effective proposal writing writing

To raise your chances of approval, start with the reason you’re writing your proposal. You’re selling. That might come as a shock to meeting planners who protest. “I’m not a salesperson, I’m a meeting planner.” It’s true that you plan meetings, but like it or not, you have to sell. When you submit your proposal you are selling your ideas. And to sell anything, you have to focus on the needs and wants of the person you’re selling to.

Jeffrey Lant, author of Cash Copy: How to Offer Your Products and Services So Your Prospects Buy Them. . .Now, defines your main problem this way: “Losing proposals are about the sender or writer, not the recipient.” His cure, “Take yourself out and shift the focus to the recipient exclusively.”

Ask Questions  Herman Holtz, the author of the Consultant’s Guide to Proposal Writing, puts his finger on the problem of most proposals: “They’re announcements instead of offers to do something.” But if your proposal doesn’t tell others how good you are, then what does it do?

Start by asking yourself, “What will be the results?” Make a list and study it. Then out of all the results ask, “Which ones will make the client (or boss or board) happy?”

For example, what will make the board of a professional organization happy? Fewer complaints? Lower costs? Higher attendance? More renewals? You know what they’re looking for because it was in your mind as you made your plans. So make a check mark by those results you feel will be the most appealing.

Carve Out a Theme  Take your pad of Post-it notes and write the essence of what your proposal is selling in one sentence. This will be a sentence that starts with “You get,” and not “I propose.” For example, “You get the training your members have requested” (for a proposal to an association). Or, “You get the destination most employees voted for last year” (for a proposal to an executive committee).

Your theme should be your strongest benefit or result. If you have trouble deciding which one of several would be the strongest one, put yourself into the minds of the recipients. Ask yourself what problems they have and where they’re most vulnerable. For example, if your potential client suffers from high turnover, your strongest point might very well be how this plan helps the firm retain employees. If association renewals have been dropping, your plan could emphasize how this convention will bring them back up.

Start Writing  When you have the strongest and best selling point clearly stated in one sentence, write it on your Post-it. Stick it on the frame of the computer screen, where you’ll see it as you write. You can also put it on top of the file you’re using, or on your clock. Start with this sentence, and keep coming back to it as you go through your proposal.

Use this sentence as you introduce new sections, such as by saying “To bring up new membership renewals even more, the convention will. . .” You cannot expect a reader, seeing your ideas for the first time, to supply all of the logical connections you see so clearly. Spell them out!

Make Your Point Quickly  Write so others can read your proposal easily. The number-one need of readers is time; the number-one problem of readers is lack of it.

So get to the point right away. Business surveys show that busy executives tend only to read conclusions. Begin with your strongest benefit and show how your ideas will bring about that result.

Busy readers will not hang on to every word breathlessly until you get to the conclusion. Start with the conclusion and then support it.

Liven It Up  Many people do not enjoy the writing process. It’s hard work. But there are some tricks you can use to make your proposal more interesting. First of all, tell a story. If you can tell a true story about how such a meeting helped the XYZ Corporation raise its employee retention rate from 81.7 percent to 90.3 percent, then tell it.

And don’t tell it in the abstract. Give details. Quote the satisfied manager or one of the retained employees. Use their exact words, even if they aren’t elegantly phrased.

When it comes to elegance, forget it. Writers who use fancy language in an effort to impress don’t. One of the nice things about business writing is that the simple word is usually the most effective. To keep readers reading, keep your sentences to an average length of 12 to 15 words.

Make a short test of the effectiveness of your proposal. Take a red colored marker and underline all sentences or phrases about results. Use another color to underline everything about you, how you will do the job, your qualifications or anything else about you or your organization.

There should be lots and lots of red. Very little in the other color. If not, fix it now.

Read and Write Again  If it’s any consolation, even the best business writers have to rewrite. And many swear by letting a piece sit for a minimum of 24 hours before they try to rewrite. When you do come back to it, read it aloud. This will reveal all of the rough bumps.

Substitute doing, thinking, or feeling verbs for being verbs. Instead of writing “the company is engaged in providing health services insurance,” put “the company sells health insurance.”

Take out adjectives that nouns can replace. Instead of a “great improvement,” talk about “an improvement of 11.43 percent.” And wherever possible, be specific, not general. Finally, check all spelling and then proofread one more time.

Now you have a winning proposal!

Both articles originally appeared in Successful Meetings magazine in different form.

WANT MORE FREE HELP? Go to the back issues of Communication Insights for timely short tips & action plans on communication topics.

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