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4 strategies for formatting your proposal to win

Our normal advice for beginners about how to format their proposals is not to exceed their capabilities. An overly ambitious layout can slow you down, introduce errors, and distract you from perfecting your message. We generally recommend that your goal should be a simple and elegant layout.

But that’s our advice for beginners. You may have heard of the design principal that form should follow function. In proposals, form should follow strategy. What are your bid strategies? What is your message? What are your own capabilities and resources? What are the customer's expectations? What will it take to get the customer to accept your proposal? What can your formatting do to reinforce your strategies and message, fulfill the customer's expectations, and help them accept your proposal? Before you start picking fonts or debating typography, you need the right strategy. Here are several ways to approach formatting your proposal.

Strategy #1: Meet your customer’s expectations by formatting your documents to look like their documents

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If you want to know what a customer expects in terms of formatting, getting a peek at how they prepare their own documents can be incredibly valuable. Are they formal or informal? Are they precise or sloppy? Are they consistent? Are they complex? What fonts and margins do they use? Do they bother with covers? If you are not sure what a customer expects your document to look like, making it look like theirs is a safe bet. Just don’t get fooled by their marketing collateral — their internal reports and memoranda probably look nothing like their marketing materials.

Strategy #2: Ask a lot of questions

If you are talking to the customer about solving their most significant problems and bringing in enough resources that budgets will be impacted, and then switch to asking what font you should use in the proposal, it may seem a little awkward. Instead you might ask:

  • Do they handle proposals routinely or is it unusual for them?
  • Do they want all the details in writing?
  • What questions would they like to have answered?
  • Do they need the proposal right away or should you take your time with it?
  • How many people might get involved and who are they?
  • Do they have a formal or informal decision making process?


These are clever ways of asking if it should be simple, what length it should be, what it should address, if they expect you to put a lot of time into it, who the audience will be, and how they will approach reading the proposal. All these things impact the formatting.

While you are at it, you might want to assess their demographics. What are the ages and backgrounds of the readers? What is the culture of their organization? These also impact the formatting, and may give you clues about the mindset the evaluators will bring to reading the proposal.

Strategy #3: Tell a visual story

Mimicking their formatting is playing it safe. Maybe that's a good thing. But maybe the customer doesn’t want you to be just like them. Maybe they want something better. Maybe they want something innovative, creative, motivated, clear, intelligent, capable, insightful, competent, quick, or comprehensive. Maybe you should show that to them. Your layout can look traditional or modern, reliable or innovative, clear or detailed, comprehensive or simple, routine or extraordinary. What story do you want to tell?

Strategy #4: Go back to basics

People almost never want to read a proposal. So keep it short and simple. Only say things that really matter. Whitespace is your friend. Make it all about what the customer will get. Communicate visually instead of with text. Format it so that the headings pop and your customer can get the message by skimming. Sometimes the best proposal format is having the least amount of proposal to format.

Conclusion: Once you have a strategy for formatting your proposal, only then are you ready to pick fonts, margins, line spacing, etc. to help achieve that strategy. When you are ready to move beyond simple and elegant, then it's time to make formatting part of how you win your proposal.

PropLIBRARY Subscribers can download our Proposal Format Guide, Sample Makeover, and other related documents here. They are also available for individual purchase on CapturePlanning.com.

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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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