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The Critical Moment When You Start Writing a Proposal

A lot of proposals go bad in the very first sentence. It happens when people start writing before they answer some basic questions. When you are staring at a blank screen, the first few critical moments should be when you organize your thoughts and your approach. Those critical moments determine what comes out when you start writing.

If you don’t organize your thoughts then your writing will also be disorganized. Worse, it will not be goal-driven. If you don’t have goals you are trying to achieve in every paragraph, then it will show in your writing. Instead of achieving what it takes to win, your proposal will drift.  Maybe it will end up somewhere near the right place and maybe not.

Instead of thinking things through before they start writing, most people try to copy something. And if they don’t have something to copy, they try to sound like something they’ve read before. The problem with this approach is that it will not reflect what it will take to win for this particular customer, offering, and competitive environment. At best it will achieve something merely ordinary. That’s not the best approach to take if you want to win. 

The other approach is to start writing, and once you’ve got some words on the screen, move them around until they sound like something you've read before. The problem with this approach is that it's based on what you know (and not on what the customer needs to hear) and usually results in a proposal that's descriptive instead of being written from the customer’s perspective.

When you sit down to write:

  • The first thing to consider is whether there is an RFP and if the RFP has instructions for what should go in your proposal. If it does, follow the instructions, using their headings, sequence, and terminology.
  • Next, consider how the proposal is going to be evaluated. Does the customer have procedures they have to follow? If you don’t know then just consider what would matter to you if you had to select a vendor and what questions would you have if you were the customer. Then ask what the customer needs to hear from their vendors, and ask yourself what you can do to help them make a selection. Do they need information, explanation, or advice? If they have a formal evaluation process, how can you match your words up with the steps and forms they need to follow?
  • Then consider the competitive environment. What are your competitors likely to offer? What can you do to distinguish your offering, or better yet, to disrupt theirs? Can you offer something that is not just a little different, but something that changes the rules — something that forces them to look at the offers from your competitors and evaluate them against what they’ve learned from you and what you offer?

Do not go forward with writing until you have some ideas for answering these questions that you can articulate. Your proposal will consist of making statements that answer questions like these and then substantiating your response in the sentences that follow.

If you are following an RFP and using headings from the RFP, you can still create subheadings so that the statements you want to make stand out and use them to drive the actual content. If you are following the RFP and responding to individual RFP requirements, make sure that you do more than simply state your compliance. Respond to the requirements in the context of how you will deliver what the customer actually wants. When you write your own RFP and include a bunch of requirements, you put them in for a reason. You select the vendor that best fulfills that goal and not the one that simply meets the specifications.

Finally, when you sit down to write, everything you do should address the customer’s perspective. It’s all about them and not about you. Don’t introduce yourself by describing your company. Introduce yourself by describing what the customer will get as a result of doing business with you. Make the very first sentence about what the customer will get or what will result if they approve your proposal. The details about your company, your offering, your approach, your qualifications, etc., only matter to the customer in how they substantiate that you will be able to deliver. Write about them in that context instead of talking about yourself.

If the first sentence is about how you are pleased to submit the following proposal, when your company was founded, where you are located, or what your company is, you probably started too soon. You may be writing just to get warmed up instead of saying something that matters to the customer. Go back and focus on the questions and think about what the customer wants to see in your proposal. It probably starts with “what can this vendor do for me?” One of the first things I do when I review a proposal is scan the paragraphs to make sure that I see answers to that in the first sentence of every paragraph.

If you did your homework and are starting the proposal with lots of good juicy intel about the customer, opportunity, and competitive environment and already know things like what distinguishes your offering and company, this will be a lot easier. If you are starting without any advance preparation, you still have a chance. It depends on your ability to anticipate what the customer would want and to see things through their eyes. That ability will have more to do with whether your proposal wins than will your ability to write clever narrative.

When all else fails, just focus on preparing a proposal that focuses on the benefits or results that the customer will receive and gives them the information, explanation, or guidance they need to perform the evaluation. Spend a few minutes thinking about that and you will produce a much better proposal than you would by copying something already written, or going through an endless cycle of writing and re-writing.

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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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