How To Write Better Proposals And Win More Business


Tuesday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

I spent as much time writing proposals in ’98 and ’99 as I did writing scripts. – Mark Millar

In my last post I wrote about how you have to understand the way people do things and the way they make decisions in addition to understanding what they need doing.

As we come to the final stages of this Listen book project let’s briefly look at what the last 45 posts have been all about.

Many of us work providing services, not products – and when we provide a service we have to recognize that understanding people is an essential part of what we do.

If we don’t see their world from their point of view then we can’t really suggest how we can serve them in a way that will work for them.

The posts so far have been about developing that capability in you to listen to someone, to get to a point where you understand the situation they are in and what needs to be done to improve it and how you can help.

That last bit, how you can help, is almost always then wrapped up and presented in a proposal and we’re going to look at how you can be more effective at that last stage – because it’s the time at which a client accepts your proposal that you’re in business.

Why do you have to write proposals?

A prospect may have enjoyed spending time with you and talking through their problems but in order to engage you they will ask for a proposal.

We’re not taught how to write good proposals or what goes into them.

All too often, we start by thinking that we need to explain everything about us and make sure we tell the prospect about every single detail of our business.

I used to do a lot of this in the early days of my career, create long documents filled with information – the thicker the proposal the more value it contained.

Or so I thought.

But the thing I didn’t know or think to question was why the client was asking for a proposal in the first place.

No one is really interested in you and your problems and your point of view.

Not really.

What comes first is their own point of view, their own problem, and what they’re looking for is a solution to their problem.

The point of your proposal is to propose a solution – and any content that’s not related to that solution has to justify being in there.

That means you usually need to be ready to write two kinds of proposals, for different reasons.

A proposal that summarizes your agreement

After a few years of writing proposals that contained everything about everything, I was starting to realize that something wasn’t going well.

I was writing these documents but it was hard work and it didn’t seem to make a huge difference in our win rate.

It just means that every time we were asked for a proposal I had to set aside a couple of days to work on the document.

And then we had a project where I had to talk to a lawyer – we were thinking about a particular opportunity and we were considering engaging some legal support.

These lawyers were expensive, polished, professional.

They listened to what we said and asked some questions and then said they would send over a proposal.

And what they sent over astonished me.

The bit that mattered was extremely brief – a covering letter, a summary of our discussions with bullet point deliverables, fees and timescales and that was it.

They were lawyers, so you did have twenty additional pages of terms and conditions, but the important part of the document was short and to the point.

I liked that approach so much that I tried out instantly and found that clients really liked it.

After all, no one wants to read any more than they have to – your proposal is not a novel or bedtime read.

It’s a business document and its length needs to be only as long as it needs to be.

If you’ve had a good conversation, listened carefully and agreed the outlines of what needs doing and have a good idea of how the client is going to view your proposal and make a decision – then all your proposal has to do is summarize that information.

A single paragraph describing the scope along with a bulleted list setting out what you will do is often enough.

This is what you might call a short-form proposal, something that summarizes what you’ve already agreed and is used simply to formally accept your offer.

The beauty of this approach is that you can create a short form proposal in minutes rather than days.

And clients love it – it’s short, to the point, and they can say yes or no quickly.

And if you’ve done your job correctly, they’ve already said yes verbally and this proposal simply seals the deal.

So, when do you ever need to create a longer document?

A proposal that ticks the boxes

The only time you need to write more is when a prospect has to make sure they’ve followed a process of some kind.

For example, you may have a prospect that really wants to work with you but who has to go to tender, invite competing bids for the work.

In that case you have to make sure that the proposal you put in front of them is one that they can evaluate easily.

And evaluation almost always comes down to a set of questions that have to be ticked off and scored.

And that means you need to design your proposal to answer those questions clearly and in order.

In my early career I would look at a proposal and put everything into it – the more content the better, I thought.

I didn’t often think of it from the point of view of the person evaluating my proposal.

For example, let’s say they had twenty questions.

They have my 70 page document in front of me, in which I have included content that answers all their questions.

But, can they quickly work out what section of the content answers each question?

You need to take the time to make it easy for them to mark.

If they can go down each of their questions and see the corresponding answer material in your proposal then they can tick that off.

And if your answer is a good one, that has assertions and evidence they can give you a high mark.

But if you put material all over the place or just copy and paste in stuff that you’ve written before then you’re making them do work to find out what’s relevant and where it is.

And that means they’re doing more work and, more often than not, they’ll score you down.

So it makes sense only write long form proposals for opportunities where you think you have a good chance of winning.

In fact, because long form proposals take so much time you really need to ask yourself whether they are worth doing.

If the prospect you’re talking to is a client you really want to get and the business you’re bidding for is something you know you can deliver and that you have a good chance of winning – then go ahead and write your proposal.

But how do you know whether you should pitch at all?

Deciding whether to pitch at all

Now, if you’re using the methods I’m suggesting in this Listen book project then in many cases you’ll only need to write a short form proposal – which takes minutes and simply formalizes what you’ve already agreed to do.

But if you need to go through an evaluation process where you need to write a long form proposal then to decide whether to bid or not ask yourself two questions.

  1. On a scale of 1-10, how much do I want this client?
  2. On a scale of 1-10, how likely am I to win this business?

If you score over 8 to both questions that’s when you should go for the business.

Write a long form proposal and, in fact, you should aim to write the best proposal you can.

You are better off spending three times as much time on writing proposals for business with clients that you really want and that you really believe you can win than spending a couple of days on less attractive opportunities.

The point is not to write a proposal – the point is to win business and you need to focus your time on the projects you want and know you can win.

You are better off winning 90% of the 10 bids you put everything into than 10% of the 50 bids for which you do the bare minimum.

My preference, in almost all cases, is to go with the short form approach.

Use the long form only when you have to, and when you do, do it better than anyone else.

After all, if it’s not worth doing it’s not worth doing well.

Next steps

We are nearly at the end of this project – I think the next post or two will wrap things up and then I’ll put this draft aside and start working on the next project.

I’m also finally starting to edit my first draft, it needed some time and distance before I could work out how to approach that material and it’s probably worth reflecting on that sometime as well.

But for now, until later,


Karthik Suresh

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