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What is the most important skill for cultivating great proposal writing?

It's not wordsmithing, editing, or subject matter expertise...

Great proposal writing isn't based on slick words. Great proposal writing does not require the editing skills of a professional. You really don’t have to be an expert in anything to be a great proposal writer. But there is one thing that is absolutely necessary, and not everyone has it. I’m not even sure that everyone can develop it. That thing is perspective. 

To write a great proposal, you must be able to conceive the words from the customer’s perspective. You must be able to think like the customer, read like the customer, and care about what the customer cares about. Proposal writing requires articulating what the customer needs to hear in order to reach a decision in your favor. But before you can do that like the customer, you have to be able to have perspective beyond your own. You have to be able to see things from the customer's perspective. If you want to improve your proposal writing skills, start by improving your ability to see the customer's perspective when they receive and evaluate a proposal.

Looking through someone else's eyes

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Great proposals

Perspective is a skill that must be developed. Some people are only capable of thinking, let alone writing, from their own perspective. It is different from being self-centered, but it affects not only the way we see things, but how we describe them. If the only perspective someone has is their own, then they interact with the world based on their own way of looking at things. When they write, they describe themselves. When they propose an offering, it’s what they think the customer should have. When they consider proposal quality, they do it based on whether they think the proposal is presented the way they think it should be. If the proposal says all the good things about them that it should, they think it’s a good proposal. Because they lack the customer’s perspective, they see getting selected as being about them as the vendor. From that one perspective, how else could it be?

Their goal is to be as descriptive as possible and full of details about themselves. From their customer's perspective, they talk about themselves a lot.

Their proposals may actually be full of good details, but their proposals won’t be great. They may even win, but they will be vulnerable. The reason is that someone else proposing the exact same thing will evaluate much higher by describing it from the customer’s perspective instead of their own. This is because when you write from the customer’s perspective, you demonstrate that what you are proposing aligns with what matters to the customer and will fulfill their goals. Skilled proposal writing requires articulating things from the customer's perspective because it ensures that you provide the information they need to reach a decision in your favor and present it in a way that matters to them.

How do you write from the customer's perspective?

Improving your proposal writing skills starts with doing a little bit of research to understand what matters to the customer. You have to know enough details about them to be able to articulate things from their perspective. But that research alone is not enough. You have to consider things from the customer’s perspective and then write what they need to read to see, as opposed to what you think you should say. This is where the real skills development is required.

Perspective is an interesting thing. To grow beyond your own perspective and cultivate it as a skill, you have to learn to see things through other people’s eyes. Perspective requires a great deal of empathy. If you can’t imagine what someone else thinks or feels, or if it never occurs to you, then you need to work on your ability to consider other perspectives if you want to improve your proposal writing skills.

How to tell when you are NOT writing from the customer's perspective

Here are four warning signs that your proposal writing lacks perspective:

  1. Everything starts with “we,” “our,” or your company name.
  2. Your company or team is the object of every sentence.
  3. The proposal is all about you describing yourself, your qualifications, your experience, and your strengths.
  4. Your proposal is about what you offer instead of being about what the customer will get.

A great proposal is about the customer and what they get out of everything you do or every qualification you have. You, your offering, and your qualifications only matter when they impact the customer. When the customer sits down to read a proposal, they are looking for what they are going to get out of you, your offering, and your qualifications. You need perspective to be able to deliver in writing what the customer is looking for instead of merely saying how great you are.

To cultivate perspective as a skill, you need to think about what would matter to you if you were the customer, reading and evaluating a proposal. You need to understand the customer’s environment, pressures, goals, and aspirations. You need to learn to want the same things they want. You need to think through making a decision the same way that they will.

Then you write what they need to hear in order to decide in your favor.

Your style of proposal writing, techniques, formatting, capabilities, and experience all matter very little compared to that.

Anyone can do it. Except those who can't.

Someone with minimal experience and little knowledge can write better proposals than senior level staff, even senior level proposal specialists, who lack perspective. Proposal writing skills do not correlate with experience. If you review the work of highly experienced proposal writers, you'll find that unfortunately, many write self-descriptive, accurate, but hopelessly ordinary proposals. If you cultivate these skills at an organizational level, it becomes a competitive advantage for your company.

While some research is required, perspective mostly requires empathy. Since we all share the same basic human nature, we all have similar concerns and motivations. It’s just that twisting wording around in our heads to look at them from the outside in requires a lot of effort. And skill.

It comes easier to some people than it does to others. In my experience, most of the people who struggle to find the words to write in a proposal are really struggling with perspective and not with proposal writing. The problem is not putting words on paper, it's putting words on paper from the customer's perspective. If you have spent your life only looking through your own eyes, you may not be able to twist your mind around enough to write from someone else’s perspective. It’s easy to think about what’s important to you. It’s a lot harder to think about what’s important to someone else who has different concerns, values, knowledge, experience and priorities.

The more you do it, the better you will get at it. The better you get at it, the easier it will be to write from someone else’s perspective. And the better you get at doing that, the better you will be at writing great proposals.

Writing good proposals vs. writing great proposals

You can write better proposals by learning more about what should go into them. Some experience will help you anticipate expectations and get through the proposal process. But if you really want to write great proposals, just learn to channel the customer, meditate on the Zen of proposal perspective, or simply ponder what it’s like to think like the customer. Then do a little research. And write from the customer’s perspective instead of your own.

Let's discuss your challenges with preparing proposals and winning new business...

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.

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

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