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5 approaches for proposal formatting

Formatting to win proposals should be based on understanding what it will take to win proposals

Our normal advice for beginners about how to format their proposals is to not make things worse by exceeding 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.

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But that’s our advice for beginners. If you are capable of reliably and efficiently producing advanced layouts, then you still need to give it some thought. The point of the proposal is not the layout, it's the message delivery. Your layout should improve your win probability, and the primary way to do that with layout is to reinforce the messaging and not through making it pretty. Sometimes you can do both, but prettiness is not the point. Winning is.

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 the customer's expectations? What matters to them about what you are proposing? 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, debating typography, or creating your layout you need the right win strategy. Then your formatting should reinforce your win strategies.

Here are several ways to approach formatting your proposal to make it about the customer instead of trying "to look good."

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

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? Are their covers elaborate or functional? 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.

You may be able to improve on the customer's format. But should you? That's a tricky question. You may want to demonstrate your capabilities, but you might also look frivolous. You might be able to improve on readability, but it will come at the potential cost of looking different. Then again, different can be good as well as bad, and maybe the customer will be impressed by your formatting or aspire to the professionalism of your formatting.

This is why your proposal formatting efforts need to be thoroughly grounded in win strategies that are informed by customer awareness. Do you want to look like part of them or are you an outsider who they want to bring in something better? Does the work you are proposing involve producing deliverables and do they give you any insight into how you should prepare your proposal format?

Will your formatting impact your evaluation score at all or is proposal formatting and style a very minor consideration?

Strategy #2: Ask a lot of questions

If the goal is to format your proposal in a way that is compatible with the customer's expectations, you really need to discover what those expectations are. "How should we format our proposal" might not seem like a business development priority, but understanding the customer's expectations should be. It's nice when the customer spells out how to organize and format your proposal, but not all customers do that.

Instead of asking what fonts you should use in your proposal, you might ask questions like:

  • Do they handle proposals routinely or is it unusual for them?
  • How will they perform the proposal evaluation?
  • Do they have preferences or expectations?
  • What questions would they like to have answered?
  • Do they want all the details in writing or an overview?
  • How long is too long?
  • Do they have a formal or informal decision-making process?
  • Do they have any file size limitations or issues?
  • Do they have any copies of previous project deliverables that are relevant that you can review?
  • Do they know what a style guide is, do they have one, and do they follow it? Can you get a copy?

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.

Strategy #3: Pay attention to their culture

Is the customer formal or informal in their speech and in writing? Are they authoritarian? Hierarchical? Consensus driven? Chaotic? Inconsistent? Practical? Creative? Your win strategies should reflect their culture, and your proposal will be viewed in the context of their culture. To maximize your win probability, your proposal should reflect their perspective, their way of making decisions, and their expectations for what a proposal should be and look like.

Strategy #4: 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 based on your win strategies?

If you have the option, make your proposal highly visual. If you have the skills you can make the entire proposal look like an infographic. Can it be so visual that they get your key messages just from looking at the graphics, without even having to read the text? If you can't visualize the story you're telling them, how will they be able to? If you are creative, you can make text visual and use it to reinforce your messaging. You can replace text with graphics, and given a choice it's probably better to do so. People comprehend better and faster through graphics than they do from text.

But while you may aspire to make your proposals look good, it can get in the way of your win strategies instead of helping. And it can slow things down and introduce proposal-wrecking mistakes. You also may be limited by the formatting requirements provided in the RFP.

Strategy #5: Go back to basics

People almost never want to read a proposal. So keep it short and simple. Only say things that matter. Your slogans and unsubstantiated claims don't matter to someone making a decision. Your proposal is not a commercial, it's a decision tool. A decision tool that's too long to read won't help influence the decision, at least not in your favor. Sometimes the best proposal format is having the least amount of proposal to format.

Focus on your message. Deliver it with formatting that is clear, simple, and elegant. Communicate visually instead of with text. Format it so that the headings pop and your customer can get the message by skimming.

Formatting for clarity means making it simple to be able to find things. It means making sure there is no confusion about how to read the content. If you don't understand typography, then trust the research that Microsoft or Apple have done and go with the defaults. If you don't understand document layout design, then find something simple that you like and copy the layout. If you've never worked with multiple columns, keep it a single column. Remember that whitespace is your friend and have a lot of it. Don't add extras to the formatting if you're stretching outside your comfort zone. 

If you don't know the art of document design, then make your proposal layout invisible. Make it so routine that no one notices it and all the focus goes to the messages in your proposal. Your proposal messaging will do more to influence the customer's decision, anyway. A great layout with bad messaging will result in a losing proposal. Great proposal messaging with an invisible layout will result in a win.

Can layout help? Maybe. But just maybe. If you have the skills to produce a dramatic layout, it can help with clarity, provide an impression, and call attention to your messages. But the messages have to be there. The job of a proposal layout is to reinforce that messaging, and sometimes the best way to do that is to get out of the way.

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

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

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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