How to write good proposals

by Andy Bounds on June 3, 2013 · 0 comments

Business people planningImagine wanting to treat your loved one with a morning cup-of-tea.  You tiptoe downstairs, so you don’t wake them.  You make the drink, then tiptoe back upstairs.  You know they’ll love your generous gift of love…

…and then you spill it all over them.

All that thoughtful hard work ruined by one mistake.  In fact, you’d have been better off not even trying.  It’s been a total waste of everyone’s time; and your relationship hasn’t improved one bit.

I often use this analogy when discussing how people write proposals.  They meet their potential customer, delighting them with their insights and meeting skills.  Then ruin everything with an over-long, cut-and-paste, rant-y proposal that stops everything dead…

So, here are five simple techniques for improving your proposals, so they impress more quickly, more often…

#1 – Send them at the last possible minute 

You’re more persuasive when you speak than when you write.  So, keep discussions going until you’re both 100% clear what the job entails, the work you’ll be doing, the fact you can help them,  and have had a brief discussion about ballpark costs.

That way, the proposal is a summary of a near-sale you’ve both agreed; instead of being, in effect, the second, less impressive half of your sales patter.

#2 – Agree what the content will be 

My three favourite questions about proposals:

  1. I don’t want to bore you with irrelevant information.  So, before I put something in writing, do you mind if I ask a couple of questions?

The only answer they can give is to agree.  They’re never going to say ‘no – be irrelevant’!  I then ask:

  1. What would you like me to include?
  2. Would you like it to be long and detailed, or short and bullet point-y?

The first gives me the headings to use, which I know they want to see (much better than guessing).  The second invariably results in me having to write less – great for both them and me.

#3 – Have a pre-populated proposal template to guide/accelerate your thinking 

Your proposal must always follow the format you agreed in your discussions with the prospect.

But sometimes you don’t get to ask them what content they want.  Or you do, and they say ‘whatever you think’.

In these cases, you need a standard template that you insert this opportunity’s details into.  My headings tend to be:

  • The need for change (here, I briefly explain why there’s a problem, and what their desired future is)
  • Our objectives and measures (what they want to achieve, and how we’ll know they have done)
  • The value our work will bring (clarity on what it’s worth to them once we’ve been successful)
  • How I’ll deliver this value (the work I’ll be doing)
  • Timings (when we start, how long it will last etc)
  • Pricing, terms and conditions (how much it will cost, plus when they have to pay. This figure is always much lower than the value of the work previously mentioned)
  • Acceptance (where I make it extremely easy for them to formally accept the proposal)

This works for me.  Though you’ll have your own version of course.  But you must have your own version, or you end up re-inventing the wheel every time.

Three quick points to notice with my template:

  • There’s no space for me to sell myself.  That’s because I don’t need to, since I kept talking until we had verbal agreement (#1 tip above)
  • It’s pretty short – 2-3 pages max
  • The word ‘you’ appears much more than the word ‘I’.  After all, the document has to be customer (not me) focused

#4 – Agree when you’re speaking after they receive it 

I hate it when people don’t reply to my proposals.  So I do everything I can to eliminate the chance of this happening.  And it works pretty well: 98% of people speak to me within 3-4 days of getting their proposal.

To achieve this, all I do is say beforehand…

‘I’ll send you the proposal tomorrow, in the format we’ve agreed.  Obviously, it’s important we speak soon, to keep the momentum going.  When shall I call you to discuss it?  The day after tomorrow?  The day after that?’ 

Even if they choose a different date, I can then agree with them what time I’ll call ‘to avoid us playing Telephone Tennis’. This ‘Telephone Meeting’ then goes in both our diaries.

#5 – Withdraw gracefully 

If it looks likely that a deal won’t happen, withdraw gracefully – ‘I’ve enjoyed our conversations, but I don’t feel I’m the person who can best help you here. I wish you every success’ etc.

If you don’t, and go through the pain of wasting your (and their) time on a proposal… well, that just doesn’t help either of you.

And finally… 

These five steps work pretty well.  They certainly remove virtually all of the problems people experience with proposals.

And they are much better than throwing a cup of scalding tea over someone you’re desperately trying to impress.

Andy Bounds is an expert at helping businesses sell and communicate better. His books The Snowball Effect and The Jelly Effect are international best-sellers. You can contact him on

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