6 simple ways to avoid awfully bad proposal writing

I continue to be fascinated by how similar really bad proposals tend to be. They all make the same mistakes. And even if you follow good processes and do the right things, when the writing is that bad it can prevent you from winning. So I’m going to take a step back from writing about what it takes to submit a great proposal, and just focus on how to make sure your proposal writing is not awful.

If you just stop doing these six things you can make a huge improvement in your proposals:

  1. Stop introducing things by defining the world. If you start off by saying “[blank] is critical to the success of this project” or [blank] plays a key role in…” you are saying something that applies equally to all your competitors. It is universally true and does not differentiate you. Instead you should be proposing to do whatever is in the blank. If it’s critical to the project, then it better be something that you are delivering, or better yet, something they can only get from you. That makes it a reason to select you.
  2. Stop telling the customer about themselves. Sometimes it’s just flattery as is “[blank] plays a vital role in saving the world.” Sometimes it’s to tell them what their needs are, as in “[blank] needs [blank] in order to save the world.” Sometimes it’s to tell them how to achieve their mission: “To achieve [blank’s] mission of saving the world, you need a…” Stop telling the customer who they are, what they need, what they should do, what their mission is, or how to achieve it. It doesn’t show real understanding, it’s patronizing, it doesn’t differentiate you, and the customer won’t be impressed by your ability to copy and paste from their website. If there is a need, fill it. If there is a problem to be solved, solve it. If it aligns with their mission and goals, they’ll realize that you understand far better than the vendor who submitted all that fluff and they’ll need to select you to get those results.
  3. Stop making statements of intent. Never use the words committed, intend, believe, value, seek, is designed to, or any variation. Don’t promise to do things. Do them. Don’t weaken or hedge on what you do. Be the company they need to get things done and not the one that makes a lot of promises, has a lot of concerns, or claims a great many beliefs while proposing to merely do what the RFP requires.
  4. Who cares that you have experience, when you were founded, or how fast you’ve grown? If there is a reason to care, then say it. Simply having experience adds no value and does not differentiate your proposal. Everyone will have experience. Yours isn’t any better unless you say why it is. What matters is not where your experience is or what you were doing, what matters is what the current customer will get out of the fact that you have that experience. Will it somehow make you better, faster, or lower in risk? The same is true for when you were founded or how fast you’ve grown. The customer has to get something out of it for it to differentiate your proposal and to become a reason to select you.
  5. Make sure your strengths are actually strengths. If you call out your strengths in a proposal, I think that’s great! But if your strength is that you’ll meet the customer’s requirements I think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. To be considered a strength, it must exceed the requirement or achieve the requirement in a way that delivers added value. A real strength becomes a reason to select you. If all you’ve got is what the customer asked for, you’re really easy to beat.
  6. Drop everything that’s not a differentiator. People struggle with finding differentiators, especially when the RFP forces everyone to do the same thing. But when you describe the results of what you do, or why you chose to do things that way, then you are saying something different from everyone else. Why you are offering what you are offering can be more important to the customer’s decision making process than what you are offering in the first place. The simplest way to make a radical difference in the quality of your proposal writing is to just stop saying anything that is not a differentiator. If it does not give the customer a reason to select you over other alternatives, it does nothing to help the customer select you.

I think most of these habits come about because people are warming up while figuring out what to say and they fall back on making it sound like everything else they see in the business world. Only you shouldn’t want your proposal to sound like everything else. If you simply stop doing these things you will greatly improve your proposals. Pull an old proposal off the shelf, see how many times it does these things, and then look at how much better it will be without them.

Perhaps the best part of stopping these really bad habits is that it forces you to say things that matter, things that differentiate your proposal, and those things provide the customer with reasons to select you. There are a ton of things that go into creating a great proposal, but if you just stop doing these awful bad things you’ll see a huge leap in the quality of your proposal writing.



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Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY.

The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is an expert at winning in writing. He is a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant.

In addition, the groups Carl moderates on LinkedIn provide a place for tens of thousands of business development and proposal professionals to discuss best practices and network.
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