Two ways to become a great proposal writer

Most training in proposal writing focuses on the mechanics of identifying what to write, and provides very little help for how to write it. I see a lot of well-trained proposal teams struggle with how to address things when they have a problem.

I’ve also watched them struggle with how to say things in writing that they’ve learned are goals but can’t figure out how to articulate. They may know that benefits are more important than features or they may know that writing from the customer’s perspective is better than describing yourself. But when it comes time to put words on paper, they struggle.

And yet it’s so easy. At least it looks easy to me, because after doing it for over 25 years the words just flow from the way I've learned to think about proposals. Figuring out how to pass that along to others so they can do it without 25 years of practice is a challenge. When I review proposals for others I’m not just looking for the defects, I’m looking for how to better guide people so they can create proposals without any defects. I see proposal reviews as being as much about training and organizational development as they are about quality assurance.

Recently I caught myself helping someone solve a problem by subtly changing the nature of the problem, wording things so they would appeal to two different kinds of proposal evaluator, and resulting in something that added value, all with the intent to be better than what the competition might offer. The problem was really an opportunity in disguise. What made the moment special was that I was able to identify a couple of things that directly addressed how to write instead of just what to write. The purpose of this article is to share them with you.

Proposal writing is simply problem solving

Proposal writing is not a creative exercise. It is using words to achieve specific goals. But what goals to achieve and how to accomplish them are problems. Proposal writing is really nothing more than problem solving.

Deciding what to offer in a proposal is an exercise in trade-offs. How do you increase value without increasing the price? How do you deal with ambiguous or conflicting customer requirements? Figuring out which trade-offs to take is a problem you will continuously face in preparing your proposals.

Proposal writing is about articulating a solution to problems or ways around them. It can be both the presentation and the solution to a problem. If you focus on presentation, you’ll be stuck about what to write when you are indecisive about how to solve the problem. But if you approach proposal writing as the way to solve the problem, you can formulate words that address the issues you are a facing.

When you need to, you can be ambiguous, use examples instead of precision, make assumptions, or redefine the problem. You can also provide options or describe the benefits of a solution. One of my favorite strategies is to turn a weakness or a problem into your greatest strength. You can do that with words.

Words can describe the solution. But sometimes words are the solution. You can define the problem, put it in context, and turn the resolution of the problem into an advantage if you turn proposal writing into problem solving.

In many ways, how you address the trade-offs and solve the problems you face defines what you need to write. In the same way that you identify your strengths and plan how you want to present them, you should identify your problems and plan what you want to say to mitigate them or turn them into strengths.

Your bid strategies are nothing but words. What bid strategies can beat your competition is a problem to solve. By approaching how you write proposals as a problem solving exercise, you can often come up with more effective words than if you simply describe your offering.

What to write in your proposals is an academic problem. How to write proposals is a skill. Developing your ability to solve problems with words is a skill that takes practice to master. But it is also a skill that has applications far beyond the world of proposals.

Great proposal writing requires match making

Proposal writing requires you to bring things into alignment. Matching your strengths to the customer’s needs. Matching your offering to the evaluation criteria. Features must be matched with benefits so that they matter to the customer. It can also be about the contrasts, such as between you and your competition. But even that is really more about why you are a better match than about the differences between you and them.

Every statement in your proposal should be a comparison, an alignment, and/or a reason why the customer should select you. Every. Single. One. This is because proposal writing is about putting things into context so the evaluator can make a decision. It is not enough to provide facts or the descriptions the customer asks for. Winning proposals requires those facts and descriptions to matter to the evaluator in a way that impacts their decision. To accomplish this, you need to match what you include in your proposal to what matters to the evaluator.

Being a good match maker, who can pair the right elements in each sentence, such as what to offer something and why it matters is the foundation that great proposal writing is built upon. Instead of describing things in your proposal, you should match every fact, feature, or item you need to put in your proposal with why it matters and how that differentiates your offering. You should put everything in context. Everything you say in a proposal requires match making.

Like solving problems in writing, being able to match things to the right context takes practice. You don’t want to pair a feature with just any benefit. You want to pair it with a benefit that aligns with the evaluation criteria. You want to match what you are proposing with why your proposal is the customer’s best alternative.

Take two steps forward

The best proposal writing is a combination of the two approaches. First you solve the problem or deal with the trade-off, and then you put the result in context. Bringing a problem into alignment with a solution or matching your approach to a trade-off to what matters about it turns the elements of your proposal into reasons why the customer should accept your proposal. This is what turns a proposal document into a winning document.



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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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