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How good brochure copy makes for bad proposal writing

Don't write your proposals the same way that people write brochures

Nearly all of the examples of selling in writing that we see in life teach us the wrong ways to write for proposals. From the ads on TV and the junk mail we receive, to the ads in publications. Even the materials handed to us by other companies are written completely wrong for proposals. And yet, when people sit down to write a proposal, they can’t help but emulate what they’ve seen when others try to sell in writing. Even what we learn in school about writing is wrong for proposals.

When you write a brochure or an ad, you are guessing who the reader will be. You have very little idea how they will make their decision or what information they need. You have to make your pitch blind. Most customers won’t bother to read your brochure so you really have to grab their attention and sell, sell, sell. It’s a numbers game.

However, when the customer has asked for a proposal, you know more about them. If you have met the customer or have a relationship with them, you will know even more. You can write the proposal directly to them and they will read it differently than they will a brochure. This changes things:

  • What compels the customer to read your proposal is to find out what they might get if they accept it. This means that instead of some hook, promotional copy, or statement to qualify your company, the first thing they should see should be what they will get and what the benefits of having it will be.
  • Next, the customer needs to find out what differentiates what you are proposing. Why is it their best alternative? Why should they take the action you are proposing over doing nothing? Why should they choose you over other vendors? Why should they choose you over doing things themselves? Or over doing something different with their limited resources?
  • Then, if the customer likes what you are offering, they will read more because they also have to determine whether they can trust you to deliver as promised. This is a key difference. People will not trust a proposal that sounds like a brochure or advertisement. To earn their trust you need to credibly show that no matter what happens you will deliver as promised. No amount of commitment or claims will do. To be credible you have to prove that you not only have the capability, but that you have also accounted for every contingency to ensure success. 
  • The customer will also need to obtain approval to make the purchase, so they need information to justify the decision. Again, you need proof points and not the claims you see in brochures and ads. If they don’t find the language they need to justify your selection in your proposal, you may lose.

Unsolicited proposals vs RFP based proposals

An unsolicited proposal is when you send the customer a proposal without the customer asking you to do that. It may or may not get considered. Would you consider a random proposal sent from someone, especially someone you don’t know? Some unsolicited proposals are really just long-form brochures. The message in these proposals tends to be “Hey, I’m glad I stumbled across you. You should do business with us.” Other unsolicited proposals are trying to influence a decision. These are effectively the sender trying to convince the receiver to go along with what the sender wants. Their success is largely dependent on how well their interests overlap and how good a job the sender does of showing that the receiver's interests are best served by accepting the proposal.

A solicited proposal usually takes the form of a Request for Proposals (RFP) that describes what the customer wants. When the customer has already decided that they are going to make a purchase, they only need proposals so they can select who the vendor is going to be. The customer isn’t looking to be convinced to purchase, they are performing an alternatives analysis. 

If the customer will conduct a formal proposal evaluation, they will need to complete forms and write justifications based on what they see in your proposal. They will seek to quantify the alternatives analysis. They may even skip reading your proposal and instead focus on scoring the alternatives. Your score against the evaluation criteria and your differentiators will have the biggest impact on their decision. A brochure will lose out to plainly written details that make the proposal evaluator’s alternatives analysis and ultimate decision easy.

How can you tell if your proposal is really just a brochure?

It’s hard to keep brochure messaging from seeping into proposals because when we see thousands of ads every day, that language sounds normal. Proposals that contain messaging like this often pass their reviews because no one sees anything wrong with them. They sound normal. To help PropLIBRARY Subscribers improve the effectiveness of their proposals, we created this 12 point checklist to determine if their proposal sounds too much like a brochure. This checklist provides quality criteria that get to the heart of what your proposal communicates so you can assess whether the messages in your proposal are being properly delivered. In addition, here is a link to a 30-point checklist for assessing customer reactions and whether you would accept your own proposal.

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Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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