Writing Winning Proposals

So, you've received and reviewed the Request for Proposals from a prospective client, or one of your clients has described a project to you in detail and asked for a proposal. How do you prepare a proposal that tells your story effectively and gives you the best chance to get the contract?

Preparing proposals that sell your services and that give the right professional impression can often seem like a daunting task. The written proposal is the one best chance to make a good impression in writing and to communicate to the client that you are the best choice. How it is organized, how well it is written, how well it addresses the client's needs and how it appears can make all the difference in the world. And all four elements need to be addressed; failing to be effective in any of these areas can spell doom.

These tips should help you overcome your concerns and get to work producing a first rate proposal.

The organization of your proposal requires careful thought. You will hope to lead your reader step by step through your vision of the project. A well organized proposal communicates that you have the organizing skill to accomplish this complex and critical project. After all, if it weren't either complex or critical (or both), your client would do it without your help. A good proposal format should include:
  • An executive summary
  • An abstract of the project
  • A detailed project description
  • A summary of the background of the project
  • A review of the need for the project and the benefits of doing it
  • A thorough scoping of the project, including objectives and performance measures
  • A description of the methods you propose
  • A detail of the deliverables of the project–what the client will actually get
  • A schedule of the project
  • A project budget and the expected economic return from that investment
  • A list of references of similar projects you have accomplished
  • A copy of your proposed legal contract for services
Meeting Your Client's Needs
A proposed project will, after all, be paid for by your client. Understanding that client's needs, and then making a proposal that addresses them, is your best chance at success. The following recommendations would be in order:

1. Be sure you understand the project. If you are working from a formal request for proposal, take the time to really understand the requirements. The RFP will hopefully be detailed enough for you to prepare a first draft. If there is no RFP, then work closely with your client to ensure that you have a complete understanding of his needs and expectations. But if you have questions, make sure that you ask.

2. Meet with the decision maker. Even if you have a perfect RFP or a good understanding, it is helpful in preparing your proposal to meet with, or at least confer with, the client. Ask all the questions you have. Make sure that the client sees you as responsive. A cold proposal given without consulting in some way with those who will be making the decision simply leaves too many stones unturned.

3. Don't overkill. I remember once in my career soliciting proposals for a trainer on a specialized topic. One of the proponents, who never bothered to call or confer with us, proposed doing a comprehensive employee and customer survey to determine our training needs, and prepared his proposal around that theme. What we really wanted was a capable contract trainer, and that is the person we hired.

4. Know your competition. If possible, get a list of all those to whom the RFP was sent, or ask your client others who will be proposing. Knowing your competition will help you sell your unique strengths and capabilities.

Write it Well
There is no room for careless error in a professional proposal. Grammar and spelling must be impeccable. Never, ever misspell a name of a decision maker. Utilize your best skills at writing, and proofread thoroughly. In addition,

1. Make sure your executive summary sells your proposal. The executive summary, which should immediately follow your cover page and table of contents, is the one-page sales portion. It is not just a summary, but a tightly edited one that offers a review of the need, the benefits, and the objectives of the project, and sends the message that you are the best proponent. In many cases, the key decision makers will read the executive summary and a review of the proposal by the staff.

2. Justify the project in terms of need. Explain why the project needs to be carried out. Give concrete facts, examples and information to justify the project's inputs.

3. Be clear on measuring success. Carefully elaborate on how the project's success will be measured. Use clear and convincing criteria, and specify the evaluation method you will be using.

4. Thoughtfully define the project scope. This is often the biggest challenge to a proponent. You must explain exactly what the project will include, and more importantly, what it won't. Offer details about the project such as time frame, sample sizes, and studies involved. Your treatment of the scope will define what it is for which you as the consultant will be accountable.

5. Offer a realistic schedule. Be careful about being overly optimistic about time frames. Use a good project management software program to prepare a PERT chart for your project; one that you can defend and live up to.

6. Finally, define your unique qualifications to be the consultant on this project. Up until now, you have been demonstrating your understanding of and approach to the project. Now comes your opportunity to define why it is that you are the best choice. Include the results of similar work you have done. Define the resources that you bring to the project. Let your qualifications shine through.

Design It Professionally
A proposal should be graphically pleasing and should exude professionalism. Here are some recommendations on design:

1. Use a common theme. If you have an attractive logo, use it as a watermark or in a footer or header throughout the document. Consider using your client's logo on your cover page as well. Make sure that pages are numbered throughout.

2. Use a common typeface. Limit your use of fonts to one or two in the document. Using one font with different treatments (bold, italics, different sizes) is even better. Keep it simple and readable. Your message and content must be paramount.

3. Color or Monochrome? Whichever your choice, make sure that the final product photocopies well. Using multiple dark colors in a chart or graph will often not show distinctions in a black and white copy. If you use monochrome, consider using some grey scales for variety.

4. Allow lots of white space. Don't fill every page from side to side and top to bottom with text. Allow room for marginal notations by your client. And more white space is more appealing to the eye.

Your proposal speaks volumes about you and your professionalism. A proposal that addresses your clients needs, is well organized, well written and attractively designed communicates a professional and effective approach to your work. Following these recommendations will help you create a proposal which will market your skills and qualifications to clients and will result in more and better projects for you and your firm.