Proposal writing: 10 Before and after examples

How not to write your proposals and what you should write instead.

A lot of proposal writing follows common patterns. When we review proposals for companies we see new examples of the mistakes below all the time. If you take a step back from the details, the patterns are quite simple. If you learn to recognize the patterns, you can avoid writing like this:

See also:
Great Proposals
  1. First I’m going to tell you what you need. Then I’m going to say that I’ll provide it.
    Before example: XYZ agency needs to update its website. Our approach to building websites is based on compliance with the latest standards.

    Do you like salespeople to tell you what you need? Me neither. Why do companies behave like this in writing? Most of the time, it’s not even necessary. You can delete that sentence and nothing will be missed. If the second sentence delivers what they need, you don’t need the first to tell them that they need it. They already know that.

    After example: We will not only bring your website into compliance with the latest standards, we’ll build a foundation that will give you more and better options in the future.
     
  2. We’re great. Here’s what we’ll do.
    Before example: ABC Corp is a highly experienced, top quality, premier provider. We will…

    All those unsubstantiated claims to greatness do nothing to add value to what you’ll actually do for the customer. They do nothing to improve your proposal evaluation score. In fact, they get in the way because they are noise. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. That’s not what you want to read. You want to read about what you're going to get if you accept the proposal. Don’t tell them how great you are. Tell they what they’ll get by selecting you.

    After example: We will leverage our experience to… (achieve a better outcome). Our approach to quality will reduce defects and improve results while we…
     
  3. This is a great truth that can’t be denied. Now here’s what we’re going to do.
    Before example: Quality is critical to the success of this project. We’ll ensure success by…

    The first sentence is universally true, applies to all vendors, does nothing to improve your win probability, and adds no value. It can be deleted. Lots of proposal paragraphs start off with great indisputable truths this way, as if the author needed a chance to warm up before saying something substantive. Instead of a great truth, try saying what you’ll do about it.

    After example: We’ll ensure success by… (eliminating defects… improving results… )
     
  4. We have years of experience.
    Before example:  ABC Corp brings 17 years of specialized experience to this program.

    Which is better, a company with 16 years of experience, 17 years, or one with a credible approach to doing the work? Did they perform well or accomplish anything over all those years? How can you tell? Experience does not deliver value. Unless it has an impact. The impact of any experience you might have is what you should talk about.

    After example: ABC Corp will deliver better results at lower risk by applying our 17 years of specialized experience to anticipating potential problems like…
     
  5. We do this. We do that. And if you’re still reading, here’s a benefit.
    Before example: ABC Corp will complete the required report. Then we will perform quality control. Finally, we will submit the report. The result will be accurate data that enables you to track progress toward a successful completion.

    I call it building to the finish. That’s when you put the good stuff at the end. I blame it on the way we’re taught to write the conclusion last in school. In a proposal, you want the conclusion first followed by the substantiation. That way when they skim your proposal and skip parts, they see what matters. That way they get your point and can choose whether to read the proof. If you’ve got this bad habit, try reversing the order of your sentences.

    After example: ABC Corp will enable you to track progress toward a successful completion by submitting the required report. We will complete the report (by…) and perform quality control (how…) prior to submission.
     
  6. We’re growing fast (You should be a part of our growth)!
    Before example: ABC Corp is the fastest growing company in our sector.

    This fails the “So what?” test. Why should the customer care about that? Do you think they should be proud to let you do work for them? If there is some benefit to them that results from your growth, talk about that and not in a way that makes you feel better about yourself.

    After example: ABC Corp’s growth enables us to bring additional resources and respond faster as your needs change over time.
     
  7. See the graphic. Here’s what’s in it.
    Before example: See Exhibit X for a description of our process. In step 1 we…  In step 2 we… In step 3 we…

    Don’t make the graphic and the text redundant. Use the graphic to replace text. Show the details in the graphic, and discuss what matters about them in the text. For example, use the graphic to identify the steps and use the text to explain why those steps are important. 

    After example: Exhibit X shows how the steps in our process deliver the data you need to ensure informed decision making.
     
  8. We promise.
    Before example: We are committed to…  We promise to… We intend to…

    Don’t promise. Do. Don’t offer an intention. Deliver. Any time you want to express an intention, simply do what it was you were about to promise. Adding commitment does not make it stronger. It makes it weaker because it says you will merely try instead of deliver.

    After example: We do it. Reliably and verifiably. 
     
  9. You deserve us.
    Before example: XYZ agency deserves the best solution possible.

    This will not impact your score or make the customer prefer you. It’s just noise. Flattery will get you nowhere. If something is important, if it matters, then talk about what you will do about it. If the customer needs something, don’t talk about the need or how justified it is, talk about what you will do to fulfill it. Be the solution. Not the noise.

    After example: XYZ agency will get the best solution possible because we…
     
  10. We are proud to support you (if you pay us enough).
    Before example: ABC Corp is proud to support the XYZ agency.

    Your feeling of pride does not add value. Actually, it is a bit self-serving and the customer knows it. Instead of pride or commitment, provide proof. If you are so proud, then you must be willing to do something better. Talk about that. Don’t talk about trying harder or intending more. Talk about delivering better results. A better offering is something the customer will be pleased to receive.

    After example: ABC Corp will bring better results to the XYZ agency by….

The common thread running through most of these is passing the “So what?” test. Don’t talk around what the customer will get. Focus on what the customer will get. That’s what you’d want to see if you were them. Don’t try to sound in any particular way or like the business-speak you’ve been exposed to. Don’t try to win with magic words. Don’t try to claim to be great. Instead, offer something that is great and focus on why.
 


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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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