Writing a Winning Proposal that Gets You the Job


Definition and function of a plan
Every plan has two primary aspects: its content and its presentation.

A cover letter, title page, table of contents, credentials, statement of problem and rationale for undertaking the job, goal(s) and supporting objectives, plan of operation, work or product measurement and evaluation, summary, cost, and appendices are required components of any project proposal. The success of your paper depends heavily on your preparation, presentation, and writing skills.

A proposition serves as a means to an end—the acquisition of work. Please do not use it as a guideline for carrying out the task. After all, you don’t want to reveal all of your expertise in your proposal, making it easy for your prospective client or supervisor to pick it up and delegate its implementation to someone else. There is a delicate balance between describing your goals and your strategy. The most successful proposals march bravely up the line…and then halt.

Introduce a summary

Start with an executive summary that is no more than one page long to introduce your plan. Writing the synopsis after the proposal is made saves time and effort because you won’t have to go back and change anything. Your focus may shift slightly as you work on different paper sections.

The summary should not be used in place of the entire plan. Instead, it serves as a summary of the proposal’s contents. The summary, an abstract, outline, or précis, is a brief plan synopsis. It can serve as an opening and closing statement during an individual show. The summary is helpful as a memory jogger if you need to refer to the proposal for further explanation. Because of these considerations, you may want to use bullet points to organize your synopsis.

Organizing: A Word of Caution

Consider what you want to include in your plan and what you’d instead leave out before you begin writing. By organizing your thoughts rationally and sequentially, you can create a blueprint for your oral presentation to help you build your story and credentials.

Take notes on what you need to cover and arrange them in the order you plan to cover each point in your presentation meeting with the customer or supervisor. When possible, group similar items together. That is, keep your personal history, credentials, and references separate from that of your business and department. Follow your proposed plan with the backing and historical information demonstrating your abilities.

An Introductory Letter

The cover letter is the most crucial part of the proposal because it conveys your comprehension of the project and explains why you are the best person, department, or business to carry out the work. Please don’t make it more than a page long. Briefly explain the issue and the steps you plan to take to rectify it. Make sure you thank them for letting you file your proposal.

Keep your letter separate from the plan. You can clip it to the cover or put it in the inside pocket of a folder, but it needs to be free so the receiver can hold it in his or her hand as you start your presentation.

The letter should be printed on letterhead, ideally on a thick, high-quality sheet. Please send it to the main point of contact, the individual you’ll work with and report to. A message must always be signed. Your familiarity with the recipient should determine whether you use your first or last name. Don’t assume too much familiarity when making this call; it’s better to lean on the side of a formality than to take something that isn’t there.

The dilemma and the solution

The core of your proposal should be an explanation of the issue or scope of the project as you see it. Again, explain the problem you visited and the conditions that led you to write this proposal. Justify your course of action. Explain your target market’s issue and why they should seek your services. Don’t just presume they’re aware of it. Define the scope of the project, the solutions you intend to implement, and the end goals you hope to accomplish.

Be cautious about suggesting obligations for activities not covered by the plan itself. For example, if you don’t plan to provide specific resources, you shouldn’t leave room for the implication that you will. Also, don’t make any promises during your presentation that aren’t included in the written plan. When presenting a proposal, it is appropriate and even recommended to detail your responsibilities and those of the other party. Rather than dealing with miscommunications later, it is preferable to talk and agree upon such matters at the time of the proposal presentation.

The plan should be the meat of your proposal, so include a concise summary of your strategy, a chance for input, and a way to track progress and results over time. Most initiatives rely heavily on two-way communication, so it should be incorporated into every step and goal. Your plan should include provisions for regular reports and approvals to facilitate open lines of communication and calm any concerns. Provide details on the testing and verifying procedures that will be implemented to ensure the project complies with any applicable regulations. In addition, please detail the steps you will take to adhere to any externally imposed deadlines or other restrictions.

What is the bare minimum result we can expect from your work? What steps will you take, and how will we know you (and we) are on target? Your audience may not ask these questions but will be thinking as you lay out your plan.

The first is associated with the project’s ultimate purpose. If your written and oral presentations are crystal clear, your audience will know exactly what results to anticipate when the project is finished. The second question is trickier because you may want to reveal only enough of your methodology and procedures to state intermediate and outcomes. Naturally, your customer or superior needs to know what to anticipate from you. However, describing every detail of your performance may be unnecessary and, in some instances, could hurt your chances of being awarded the contract or assignment.

What happens next

Information can be presented clearly and concisely through graphs, charts, line sketches, and timelines. Please put them in your proposal where you believe they’ll do their best to clarify and enhance the text without separating them too far from the material they pertain to. Don’t put supporting evidence in the appendix; readers will turn back and forth and confuse your argument.

Providing a page-by-page table of contents is helpful if the proposal is more than ten pages long.

References, biographies of principals involved, a client and project list, a list of credentials, licenses, and certifications, a glossary of terms, a list of illustrations, and anything else that helps back up your proposal’s problem statement and solution should come after the proposal’s main body.

How much is this going to set me back?
If you give a gathering of people a printed proposal to follow along with while you make a presentation, someone will almost always check the last page to double-check your cost estimate. Don’t place it in that spot.

Cost should be presented as a separate factor and integrated into your plan where it makes the most sense, along with other considerations such as time, quality of work and resources, and expected benefits. If you decide to list prices for various sections of the plan, include a summary page with the final totals.

Instead of listing rates, explain what you’re paying for. To clarify, you could say that you have included a seemingly pricey component or service because it is the most cost-effective option and will save money in the long run. Raising the problem demonstrates your knowledge and professionalism while reducing the likelihood of pushback.

Ask which parts of the plan your audience thinks may be too expensive if they strongly object to the total cost. To save money on things your customer or boss doesn’t think are necessary, you may have to negotiate their removal or substitution on the spot. Avoid looking unprepared and lose face by researching alternatives before making a planned presentation.

Be careful of your words

Poor or careless writing is the fastest way to kill a plan. If your proposal is poorly written, it doesn’t matter how impressive your technical expertise, familiarity with the subject, or track record is. An unorganized written submission or a lack of careful planning sends the wrong message about your professionalism and competence.

Keep your language simple and avoid unnecessary words. They may impede your communication ability rather than help you appear more informed and intelligent. Even if you’re confident that everyone reading your proposal is on the same page as you, there’s always the possibility that at least one person will misunderstand something you say. Perhaps the person has never heard a particular word before and feels awkward asking for an explanation. An individual may have significant sway over your plan’s approval.

Use an informal tone. Your aim should be to be brief but comprehensive. Even if the topic is highly technical, write as if conversing with the reader’s face to face. We all tend to be more reserved and professional in our writing than in our speech, but there’s no need to go overboard with flowery language or overly technical jargon. When in question as to whether or not your audience will understand a term, it is best to define it just in case. Those who are conversant with the word will take no offense. Try writing in complete sentences, even using bullet notes or a numbering system.

Remember that there may be people who will peruse your proposal after you’ve given your presentation but who you will never meet; for example, the chief financial officer or comptroller who must approve all invoices. Will they fully grasp its contents without you having to say, “What that means is this…” repeatedly? Remember that the text may be read orally in whole or in part. If a member of your audience says, “What is our duty here where it says…” the answer should be easy to read without a string of awkward phrases or complex words or sounds.

The tone of your writing should be competent without sounding stuffy. Even if the only people reading your proposal are close friends and colleagues, that doesn’t give you the license to write it in a casual tone full of inside jokes and inside references. Remember that not everyone who hears your speech or sees your proposal will have English as their first language. If the situation is severe enough to warrant a formal suggestion, it deserves serious consideration.

Some people who write proposals are experts in their area but have trouble expressing themselves in writing. In that case, you should get some assistance with the plan writing. Working with a skilled writer is safer than going alone and possibly failing the task.

The grammar check feature is available in all word processors and should be utilized. But don’t rely on it solely; review what you’ve written before turning it in. The most effective method is to read the plan aloud after giving it time to rest for a day or two. Before delivering the talk, you may also want a colleague to review it.

Boiler depleting

Proposal authors frequently reuse boilerplate language, which consists of commonly used phrases and sentences. There is, of course, no problem with this at all. Time is conserved, and mistakes are avoided, right?

There is always the risk that gremlins will make their way into your document if you don’t double-check every proposal that departs your office before sending it out. The boilerplate with blanks for adding new content with each new submission is particularly dangerous. If you send a proposal to the XYZ Widget Company without making even one change to the ABC Widget Company, you risk having the whole thing rejected. It’s a bad sign of negligence, and it could potentially spill the beans on more about your company than you want the public to know.

The useful life of a boilerplate is finite. It loses its freshness and relevance before your eyes. Each part you submit with proposals should be reviewed no less frequently than once every six months. Don’t expect an aide to do the work for you if they don’t have up-to-date information. In addition, you are the one who will be presenting the plan to the client or supervisor, so it is you who will have to defend any inaccuracies, omissions, or even leaks of private information that may have made it into the document.

Proposal requests (RFP)

Even if your company or division has established a standard bid and proposal writing procedure over the years, you may still need to adjust. Large companies and government organizations often have particular formats that submissions must follow to be considered.

Suppose you have to send in your proposal and won’t be able to give a personal presentation. In that case, carefully following all available directions is in your best interest. Reviewers can make fair comparisons between RFPs using the standard template. Your reader may give up on your document if they must dig around to locate the necessary information. The reviewer may wonder what they could anticipate from the project if the author can’t follow simple instructions.

Read the RFP rules thoroughly and underline any applicable instructions. Create a checklist of everything that needs to be done, and cross it off as you go. Unless it is crucial to your submission and you have included a detailed explanation in your cover letter, please do not include more information than is requested. Equally important is providing a thorough justification for any incomplete portions of the RFP. Please don’t send in your proposal until it’s completed; that sends the wrong message.

Put on a show

Don’t give in to demands that you “just mail it to us”; your plan will suffer from anything less than a face-to-face meeting. After all, you want to offer more than just your services in your proposal; you want to sell yourself.

When the time comes for your talk, double-check that everyone who matters will be there. It’s a good idea to check in the day before to see if anyone won’t be there. If you know their names, having the primary contact hear them read would be helpful. It’s preferable to have everyone present simultaneously, as absentees may receive the actual attendees’ interpretation of the meeting instead of your carefully prepared presentation. If that isn’t possible, suggest moving the talk date so everyone can attend. A conference lasting an hour and a half to two hours is best scheduled for ten in the morning, while Friday afternoon is the worst time.

The reality is that you probably won’t be able to communicate with every stakeholder at once. If some people were supposed to hear your proposal but couldn’t make it, you may have to give it again or depend on reports from those who did listen to it.

If the former applies to you, attempt to present differently than you did at the first meeting. Suppose you submit your proposal precisely as you did the first time. In that case, you risk coming off as robotic and uninspiring, especially if any members of the prior group are in attendance. A novel strategy has a much better chance of keeping everyone’s attention.

Ensure everyone in your original crowd fully grasps your presentation before asking them to relay it to others. Inquire whether there is anything else you can do to assist them in remembering your plan.

What should I do first?

Once you’ve exchanged niceties, it’s time to get down to business and read your cover letter. It’s a way to introduce yourself to the people reading your proposal and convince them that you are the best candidate to carry out the project you’re outlining. Get people’s attention by removing the letter from the proposal (it shouldn’t be stapled in!) and displaying it in front of you. When one person stands up, everyone else should follow suit. If you do it, they will too.

You can summarize and paraphrase the letter’s contents without having to read it audibly to your audience. Solicit feedback, either briefly address comments or state you’ll handle questions as you get to them in the presentation. Take a quick note to remind yourself later.

When you are sure that everyone is paying attention and that there are no roadblocks, it’s time to launch into a summary of your strategy. Ask for questions and restate your plan of attack, then answer them as you did before.

It can be challenging to maintain group cohesion, but doing so is always important. You only need one person to interrupt your presentation by leafing through the pages and making irrelevant remarks and observations. You could ask him or her to take notes on any questions or concerns so that you can handle them all after the presentation is over.

Talk to the audience naturally as you go through the talk. Remember that this is not a speech to the Rotary Club or a university lecture. Even though you’re trying to land a contract or task by showcasing your technical expertise, your presentation is still a business process. Without your audience’s approval, you can’t play the role of expert and prove that you’re the best choice for the position. Right now, it matters less what kind of knowledge you have than how well you can explain how you plan to use it.

Take the helm; don’t expect others to follow. Do not recite aloud to your audience what they can easily read for themselves from the printed page in front of them. Explain the text’s ideas, methods, and strategies by restating, paraphrasing, and expanding upon the author’s original words. It’s a good idea to review a copy of your plan and make notes and clarifications before giving your presentation. But be wary of going into such depth that you commit yourself to activities beyond your proposal’s scope.

If you intend to use visual assistance in your presentation, such as a flip chart, PowerPoint, overhead or slide projector, VCR, computer screen, or anything else, ensure you have plenty of time to practice it beforehand. And make sure everything is working correctly with a test run before the meeting. If you’re having problems with your presentation software, don’t spend more than a minute attempting to fix it. Instead, get used to moving forward without visible or auditory aids.

Distractions and roadblocks

Presentations of proposals often lead to heated debates and even physical altercations between attendees. Someone in the room, either someone you know or don’t, may have presented or supported a similar plan and been shot down. Some people may be born to be cynics, always finding fault with new ideas and resisting any progress. One or two people could take on a show-me! Attitude and refusal to accept that (pick one) an insider, outsider, field representative, corporate staff member, woman, man, engineer, marketing specialist, or… fill in the blank… could ever have a proposal worth listening to.

But there is still hope. When giving a talk, it can be helpful if an opponent raises objections and concerns you can address and overcome with a well-thought-out response. Accept critique appreciatively and graciously and build upon it, emphasizing the positive points you present without overplaying or pandering to a disruptive audience member.

Keep an eye on them as you talk. Is there someone who seems on the verge of asking a query but then backs away before they do so? Is there a specific individual who always seems to disagree with you? Is there anyone who appears disengaged and disinterested while another person enthusiastically nods with every new piece of information you provide? Do you bore them, or do you keep their interest? Pace yourself, speak more clearly, and address particular people by name when appropriate. Include quotations from their answers in your presentation later.

The value of proper packing

It’s unfortunate but true that many readers form opinions about books based solely on their titles. Presentation and order are essential. An unwieldy or unprofessional proposal reflects poorly on the presenter, company, department, and plan. The difference between acceptance and rejection often comes from a few additional hours spent polishing the written proposal.

Keep things basic. Avoid using colored sheets and opt for high-quality paper with a high rag content. They detract rather than add emphasis. Keep the plan 8.5″ x 11″ in size and fold any diagrams, including flowcharts, schematics, organizational charts, and graphs. Larger sheets are more challenging to file and rapidly become dog-eared, making your proposal unprofessional. Include big plans and drawings as coded illustrations in the body of your proposal text and as separate exhibits if they are not already included.

Make sure your paper is laser printed in a legible typeface. Serif fonts are much easier on the eyes than sans-serif ones. If one or more reviewers have trouble viewing small print, you may want to increase the font size to 11 or 12 points instead of the standard 10. The right border should not be justified. The neater appearance comes at the expense of readability, mainly if your printer creates vast gaps between individual words.

Avoid using decorative fonts and intricate page arrangements. In most cases, they serve to perplex the viewer further. These days, most proposal authors use some page layout software, be it a dedicated desktop publication app or a formatter. However, expert designers should be consulted if you lack experience with page makeup techniques. And don’t feel you need to use charts and graphs to demonstrate every point. A graphic that took a lot of effort may not always be preferable to a well-written explanation.

Use bullet marks and lists to draw attention away from blocks of gray text on white pages. Keep generous borders (at least 1.5 inches) to give your readers room to take notes. If you number the pages, guiding your audience to specific document sections will be easier.

Your proposal is an official business record. Please don’t make it appear like a term paper by putting it in a folder from the drugstore. Staple binding is acceptable for documents with six or fewer pages; use a three-ring binder of the proper size for longer papers, or add stiff covers and bind them. Books bound with three rings, spirals, or plastic combs can be opened flat cheaply.

“I’ll take one for you and one for me…”

Don’t freak out if seven people are waiting for you to present and you only bring five copies of your plan to the meeting, which you were supposed to give to a group of five. Prepare for the worst and get different versions.

A question like, “You don’t mind that I’ve asked Chris and Martie to sit in with us, do you?” won’t throw you off if you’re ready. You care. However, your options are limited. Extra copies of your plan should be printed and brought along. It is inefficient to have multiple people share one file.

The motivation behind the suggestion

You should treat your proposal like a sales instrument and use it as such. It’s a promise to your client or boss outlining the work you intend to accomplish and reassuring them that they’ve come to the correct place. It must be well-planned, organized, written, illustrated, and delivered. The less you have, the less likely you are to get the position. If you fail to prepare and present a proposal that speaks well of you, you may never get the opportunity to showcase your skills.

Adams Press, run by Jim Kepler and his family since 1942, has produced books for independent publishers and self-publishing authors; this piece may be reprinted with proper attribution. To learn more about Adams Press, go to their website.

He has led writing seminars like “You Ought to Write a Book” before.

Read also: Precisely why Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs need A Solid Marketing Plan?



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