7 bad proposal writing habits to break

Learning what not to do can be just as important as learning what you should do

Most of the proposals companies ask us to review have one or more of these issues. This means that most proposal writers have one or more of these bad habits. Simply fix these bad habits and you will make a dramatic improvement in your proposal writing. Once you’ve broken the habit, you can flip each one around and find a best practice hiding inside.

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Themes
  1. Don’t state a universal truth by way of introduction. Avoid the temptation of starting off by saying something that is obviously and universally true, like “quality is vital for the success of this contract.” This is equally true of your competitors, and says nothing to make you a better alternative. If the statement is true, then start off by saying what you’ll do about it. That matters far more to the customer than what you were going to say. Take credit for owning the solution. Frame the issue with insight instead of something that does not differentiate your proposal one bit. Add value.
  2. Don’t state your commitment or intentions. Don’t be committed to customer satisfaction, quality, risk mitigation, etc. Deliver them. If it’s important, then don’t promise it, do it. Show commitment instead of intent. Which do you find more compelling, a vendor’s intentions or their credible and verifiable approach to delivering what you want? Likewise, don’t promise, believe, look forward to, hope, or otherwise say what you’d like to happen instead of saying what you are going to do. And don’t make your proposal about your mission or values, since those are essentially intentions. Prove your intentions through the results your actions will deliver, instead of making unverifiable empty promises, even if your intentions are good.
  3. Don’t tell the customer about themselves. Don’t tell the customer what their mission, needs, or requirements are. Don't write your proposal like a lab report in school. Instead, show insight into how to achieve these things. The customer looks to a proposal to find out how what is offered will help them achieve their mission and fulfill their needs. They do not look to a proposal to discover their mission, or to see if you can repeat it. Simply describing their requirements does not add value or help them make their decision. It does not show understanding. Understanding is best shown by results. If you deliver the right results, the customer will know that you understand. But seeing that you copied and pasted something from their website doesn’t give them any confidence in your understanding.
  4. Don’t make your proposal about you. It’s easy to get tricked when the RFP says to describe your company and offering. But what the customer really needs is to know why your offering is the best alternative and what makes it credible. Most of the details they request are so they can evaluate your credibility. They aren’t really interested in you. They are interested in what you can do for them. Make your proposal about the customer and what they will get as a result of accepting your proposal. The easiest way to do this is to never describe yourself. Describe what matters to the customer about your qualifications and approaches. Prove that they can trust you to deliver. But don’t make your proposal about you. Make it about the customer. And while you are at it, don’t waste their time saying things like you are pleased to submit your proposal. That’s obvious, adds no value, imposes extra reading on the evaluator, and does not reflect the customer’s perspective. If you want to reflect the customer’s perspective, start off by saying what they are going to get if they accept your proposal.
  5. Don’t build to the finish. What you learned in school can lead to bad proposal writing. What the customer needs to see in a proposal is what you offer. Then they read the details to see if they can trust you to deliver it. When writing proposals, the conclusion should come first. If it comes last, it is just a wrap up and not an offer. They may not see it at all. Building to the finish does not reflect the customer’s perspective, what they want to see, or how they approach reading a proposal.
  6. Don’t make unsubstantiated claims, especially grandiose ones. If you call yourself unique, you better prove it. Otherwise you hurt your credibility. Don’t claim to be state-of-the-art or innovative. Prove that you are through the results your approaches deliver. When you are selecting a vendor by reading proposals, you are less likely to select the one that sounds like a television commercial than one that shows insight. A good way to avoid making unsubstantiated claims is to avoid describing your company at all. Instead, talk about what you will do or deliver. Details about your company only matters as proof that you can deliver. If what you do or deliver is exceptional, and the way you do or deliver it is credible and differentiated, you will be the customer’s best alternative, even if you don’t make grandiose claims about yourself. The reverse is not true.
  7. Don’t use slogans. When used in the narrative portion of a proposal, slogans and tag lines are all unsubstantiated claims unless you are somehow using one in a proof point or summary. In a proposal, slogans don’t even support your branding because they make you look like someone who is willing to put selling ahead of talking about how you’ll fulfill the customer’s needs. In a proposal, slogans and tag lines don’t characterize what you are presenting. They just get in the way, create extra reading, and can make the customer skeptical of your trustworthiness. What makes proposals different from other marketing materials is that you are not positioning unspecified services against unspecified customers with unspecified needs and unspecified actions where a high-level statement adds structure. In a proposal, you are speaking to a specific customer to address their needs and help them make a decision. Slogans don’t help with decision making. The customer gets no value from slogans used in a proposal. Instead, just be your slogan. Let your proposal prove it. But make your proposal about the customer and not what you think you need to say.
     

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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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