How to write a short proposal and stay within the page limit

8 techniques for focusing like a laser on what matters to the customer

It saves so much time to write a short proposal than writing a long one and editing it down. It also involves a lot less risk. However, it does require you to think about what you are going to write before you start. But you should be doing that anyway.

Skip the introductions

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Proposal Writing

You don’t need a page to introduce your company. You don’t need half a page to introduce each section. Just say what matters --- to the customer. Just because something matters to you does not mean it will matter to the customer. What matters about your company to the customer is what they’ll get by selecting you, and whether they can trust you to deliver as promised. 

If you can’t say what matters about your company to the customer in just a few focused sentences, then you just don’t matter that much. If what you have to say will matter to the customer, then take as much space as you need and delete something else that matters less.

A heading called “Introduction” or “Executive Summary” doesn’t have to take up a lot of space, so it’s up to you whether you start off with one or just make the first paragraph of the first section the introduction. Let the customer’s expectations guide you. Just don’t assume because you have a heading that you have to put more than a few lines under it.

As for the section introductions, you can skip them. The customer doesn’t need to read about what you are going to say before they read what you said. They don’t need it to be put into context because they know what they asked for. Just give it to them. That’s what the customer is telling you they want by setting the page limit so low.

And skip writing an introduction sentence for each paragraph as well. You don’t need to get warmed up to say something that matters. Just say it.

Don’t try to prove thoroughness through detail

Demonstrate thoroughness by being insightful. Focus on what all those details mean. You can show that you’ve considered everything without detailing it all. Talk about what things add up to. Talk about the impact of things. Talk about what matters about things. Combine, collapse, integrate, and summarize the steps, procedures, and details. Only talk about the details if the customer asked for them or there is a specific reason why each of those details matter. And then consider focusing on the reason why they matter instead of the details themselves.

A well written plan in a proposal is not the plan with the most detail. Instead it’s the plan that the customer finds to be the one that understands and anticipates the issues and is insightful. It’s the plan that matters the most. The customer of a tightly page limited proposal isn’t looking to select an architect by studying blueprints. They will make their selection by reading the rationale for the design. If the page limit is really tight it means they don’t even want details about the design, and just want the rationale. 

Demonstrate understanding by having the right approach and not by claiming it

Unless the customer asks for it, avoid creating a separate section called “Understanding.” When you receive a proposal, you determine who understands by what they offer and how well they anticipate the issues related to delivering it. Their grasp of what matters proves their understanding. So prove you understand through how you present your offering and approaches.  Whatever you do, don’t waste page space with material copied from the customer’s webspace that tells them about themselves.

Think about what gives the customer the most value in performing their evaluation

It’s not about you. It’s about the customer. And in particular it’s about the evaluator. What do they need from you? How can you help them? A helpful proposal shows them how to accomplish their goals by way of your offering and shows them how it matches their priorities per the evaluation criteria. It makes the decision easy. A helpful proposal will likely score higher than a proposal from a vendor that just talks about themselves in as much detail as they can pack into the page limit. 

Don’t write about the subject of your assigned proposal section. Write to help the reader discover why you are their best alternative and to easily complete their evaluation.

A good way to get started

Stop trying to think about all the things you should write about. Instead focus on the points you must make in order to win. Then include only the details needed to prove your points and establish compliance with the RFP. Compliance in a page limited proposal may not mean what you think it means.

Stop trying to make your plans in the proposal actual project plans. Implementation plans are often detailed. But good proposal plans are not the same as implementation plans. Good proposal plans make points about preparation, capability, and readiness for implementation. They are not a recipe for every task required for implementation.

Stop trying to make your approaches about steps and procedures. What points do you need to make about your approaches? How will you prove those points? That is what you should talk about.

The evaluation criteria are a clue

In an RFP, the evaluation criteria will tell you what factors the customer will consider in making their decision. These are the things that the customer thinks are the most important. What you think makes for a good plan, approach, or proposal section matters far less than what the evaluation criteria says matters about them. This is not only true because the evaluation criteria will be used to score and select the winner. It is true because when the customer considered what will matter when making their decision, this is what they selected. Take that as a clue. Address the evaluation criteria as if they matter and let what you think matters get cut in order to stay within the page limit.

The shortest proposal

Only say things that matter to the customer. When you run out of things that matter to the customer, stop. That’s how long your proposal should be. Do not keep writing in the hope that you might stumble across something that matters. If you’ve only said things that matter to the customer and you’re still over the page limit, you should revisit your assumptions. And prioritize. Prioritize what you give page space to based on what matters to the customer the most. When the page limit is tight, a meaningful proposal will beat a proposal that crams details margin-to-margin and removes spacing between paragraphs, lines, and even characters.

What makes a page limited proposal any different?

Even if there is no page limit, you still have to communicate effectively and get the highest score. So if you think about this, these techniques aren't just for writing a page limited proposal. They are relevant to writing any 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. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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.

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