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How to tell your story in a proposal

Stories are how you enchant a captivate the reader

Circumstance

So you want to tell a story in your proposal. You’ve heard that a great way to win is to tell a story that is worth repeating, captures the evaluators' attention, is memorable, and leads them to the conclusion or action you want them to take. That sounds great! But how do you do that in a proposal? How do you respond to customer requirements in such a way that you tell a story? 

Approaches

Here are some common ways to tell a story that can be applied to proposal writing.

  1. The Case Study. Instead of telling your story about the customer, tell it about another customer with similar requirements. Case studies are a good approach to use when you don’t know the new customer well enough to speak specifically to their needs.
  2. Anecdotes and Examples. If you can’t describe an end-to-end case study, you can still share anecdotes and examples. Instead of making the story about a specific case, make it about a number of examples that feature elements that are relevant to the new customer.
  3. Tell Their Future. Make the story about what things will be like after you are done working with the customer or at some other point in the future. Make it about how much better things will be. You don’t have to describe the currently environment in detail, but you do have to describe the benefits of your offering from the customer’s perspective. What will it be like to be on the receiving end of your offering? How will the customer’s work environment change for the better?
  4. Before and After. When you do know about the customer’s current environment, you can tell a story that is a series of before and after comparisons and contrasts. Just make sure you don’t patronize or insult the customer about their current state.
  5. A Hypothetical Story. If you want to tell a case study or a before and after story, but you don’t have one that is sufficiently relevant, then just make it up. That’s what a hypothetical case is. Don’t present it as a story about a previous customer, just present it as a story about a typical customer or the kind of circumstance that’s relevant. Hypothetical stories are often used when describing contingencies (if this happens, then…).
  6. A Manifesto. A manifesto is a bold declaration of your principles and intentions. It should be compelling and inspiring. But a manifesto also tends to be about the author and not about the customer. In a bid where the odds are stacked against you, a manifesto can clearly set you apart from the competition. A manifesto is inherently polarizing — instead of promising everything to everybody, it promises something specific and may repel those who disagree. For proposals that’s a high risk strategy. But when the odds are already stacked against you, it’s just the sort of thing that can take your slim chance and turn it into a win.
  7. A Tutorial. When the customer is looking to you to provide expertise that they don’t have, you may have to teach them how to evaluate your proposal. Your story shows what’s important and explains its significance. The trick is to present it as a demonstration of your competence without patronizing the customer.
  8. The Proof. Make your case. Prove that the customer should select you.
  9. An Adventure. Is it about the destination or about the trip? On some projects, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out because part of the project is figuring that out. So how are you to work with? What kind of experience will the customer have? Will it be fun and exciting? Dangerous but under control? Boring but reliable? The calm in the middle of the storm? What kind of adventure will you have with the customer?
  10. A Mystery. Help the customer solve the problem by becoming a detective. What kind of detective are you? Are you Sherlock Holmes or are you Columbo? (I’m showing my age but you can find him on YouTube.) Make your story about how you will solve the case.
  11. A Comedy. Humor is risky. Nearly all proposals try to avoid it. That makes it a great way to differentiate yourself. If you can manage the risk.

Here are some elements of storytelling that you can use regardless of the type of story you write:

  1. Value proposition. A value proposition can be an element in another kind of story, or it can be a story all by itself. Your value proposition is basically how you justify your price. Telling a story that’s all about your value proposition makes your proposal all about the price. Sometimes this is the best strategy, but most often it is not (or is a minor part of it instead of the focus).
  2. Positioning. How do you compare — to your competitors, to other alternatives, to the customer, or even to yourself (if it’s a recompete)? In a competitive environment, you need the customer to understand how you are alike and how you are different. Most importantly, you want them to know why you are better. Positioning is another strategy that can be just one part of your story or the entire focus.
  3. Plot or not? A plot is a logical series of events leading to the climax of the story. Some stories build to a conclusion. But some stories are not based on a plot. They may be descriptive, informative, observations, expressive, or otherwise non-sequential. Because proposals are goal-driven, proposal stories tend to work best when the elements reinforce each other and all lead to the same conclusion.
  4. Origins. Where did you come from? How did your offering get invented? The story about something’s origins or how it got started can be captivating. The only problem is that you must make it matter from the customer’s point of view. Who cares about you and your origins? Why do they matter? Your story should revolve around what the customer gets out of it.
  5. Descriptive. Most proposals read like a boring documentary. A descriptive story is the easiest to tell, but it’s the hardest to win with. Customers care more about results than about descriptions.
  6. Call to action. What do you want the customer to do after they read your proposal? The climax of the story in a proposal will most often be your call to action. But don’t simply make the story about nagging them to take the action you want. To make them want to take the action, you need to tell a story that they want to be a part of so that they take the initiative to take action in order to continue the story.
  7. Procedural. There are steps involved in the procurement and steps involved in delivering your offering. You need to describe those steps. An alternative to being merely descriptive is to tell a story about those steps. Is it a drama, an adventure, a mystery, or something else? It’s not about the steps. It’s about what the steps mean, what they add up to, and how they impact the customer. Telling a story instead of describing steps can help the customer see themselves as part of the process.
  8. The Surprise Ending. Creative writers love to hit you with an ending that you never expected. Don’t try this in your proposal. While you want to tell a story, proposals don’t get read like a book. They may skip the page where you reveal your brilliance. Instead, tell them the ending of the story at the beginning and make the surprising part how you get there (with a superior approach that no one else would think of, let alone try to deliver).
  9. The Scary Story. When there are risks, the customer should be concerned, even afraid. If you need to describe those risks, you might need to tell a scary story. So go ahead and tell it, just keep it credible.
  10. Why. Often what matters the most to the customer is not what you will do, but why you will do it that way. The story isn’t about the details of the offering, but the explanation — why you choose to do it that way, why it matters, and what the customer will get out of it.
  11. The Sequel. When a movie is successful, they often release a sequel to keep the story (and the revenue stream) going. Many contracts have periodic recompetes. A recompete is a sequel. So how will the characters and the story change in your sequel? If they don’t change, it will make for a boring story. The changes are what makes a sequel interesting, both at the movies and in a proposal. Another way to look at sequels is to think of the proposal as the first release and the project as the sequel. If you tell a good story in your proposal, the customer will be anxious for the sequel so they can see how it will turn out.
  12. The Remake. Movie studios love remakes because they consider them to be low risk. But how many remakes are as good or as better than the originals? In my experience, hardly any. Think about that when using boilerplate or preparing for your next recompete. The best remakes are when they reimagine the whole concept of the original and produce something that is familiar but innovative and far better produced than the original. If you are working on a remake (whether it’s a recompete, a project similar to another one from your past, more of the same type of work, recapturing work you had but lost, etc.), then consider what it will take to produce a remake that is loved as much as or more than the original, instead of one that disappoints.

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