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The Education I Got From Writing Proposals

When I work with subject matter experts I usually learn a lot. I’ve been exposed to so many subjects that I can often fool people into thinking I know what I’m talking about. It turns out there are a few subjects I’ve learned about over the years that I return to again and again when I sit down to write a proposal.

It's not like I've actually learned how to do anything, but I have picked up a lot of useful vocabulary. When you are trying to interview and coach the real subject matter experts through writing something for a proposal, it really helps to understand some of their issues and have the vocabulary to ask relevant questions. Because I’ve picked up their vocabulary and am used to seeing things from the customer's perspective, I can often do a better job of writing of writing about why things matter than the subject matter experts themselves.

Learning about these five subjects has helped me write much better proposals:

  1. The Software/Systems Development Lifecycle. This is an oldie but a goodie. When you’re proposing to develop an information technology system, you have to show that you understand how to plan it. So you typically take people through a series of steps that go something like: gather requirements, design the system, develop the system, test it, and then implement it. A real subject matter expert might slice it and dice it differently, but just being able to talk about things like requirements analysis and how you validate the design comes in handy for non-IT proposals. The Systems Development Lifecycle is old terminology for IT proposals. But for non-IT proposals it gives you a vocabulary that sounds sophisticated. When I sit down to write an environmental, health care, building construction, security, landscaping, or any other kind of proposal, I use vocabulary from the systems development lifecycle to formalize the approach to designing the approach or offering, getting things ready, testing them prior to use, and then implementing what we’re proposing.
  2. ISO 9000. ISO 9000 is a formal approach to quality assurance. I’m showing my age by calling it ISO 9000 because that is not the current version. And there are other quality methodologies, called things like the Capability Maturity Model and Six Sigma, that specialists debate about and might prefer. If I wanted to know the right version and approach for a given situation I’d have to ask a real subject matter expert. But the beauty of it is that it doesn’t matter. By being part of an ISO 9000 implementation, I learned a few key principles that I can add to proposals without ever using the ISO label. I learned that it’s not enough to simply have a process — you have to prove that you followed it. This requires maintaining records. I learned about change control (you need a process to change the process). I learned about the benefits of audits. Now I have lots of vocabulary that I can sprinkle into any proposal that has to deal with the issue of quality. Quality is an issue in every proposal.
  3. Engineering. I have found it to be really useful to know a little about engineering. You don’t have to know how to build anything, but it helps to understand how engineers engineer. They do things in particular ways. They turn design into a science, and have formal approaches for things like assessing alternatives. Whenever there is something to be designed or even a decision to be made, I can make it sound like there is a detailed, technical methodology for reaching the decision. Also engineers don’t take chances, and have formal methodologies for identifying, classifying, and mitigating risks. If you learn a little about how they do what they do, you’ll gain a vocabulary for explaining how you make decisions and reduce risks. Every customer is concerned about risk. Every project involves making decisions.
  4. Training. Experts in training don’t just get in front of a classroom and put up some slides. They use methodologies like Instructional System Design to achieve desired learning outcomes by matching the appropriate curriculum methodologies to the learning styles of the participants. They don’t just hold a class, they plan training logistics for classroom presentations. Write a proposal for a training company and you’ll forever be able to enhance any future proposal that involves any kind of training. Every proposal that has staff involved has an element of training in it.
  5. Logistics. If you’ve never done it, you might not realize how much thinking goes into managing a warehouse, a fleet of trucks, or a supply chain. While I don’t have the skills to do those things, having written about them sure comes in handy when I have to talk about things like maintaining an inventory or keeping spare parts.

Combine these areas and you can increase the sophistication and technical detail of any proposal.

If you want to improve your skills as a proposal writer, instead of just looking for courses in proposal writing, you might what want to try taking a class in systems analysis, engineering methodologies, training/curriculum development, and logistics or supply chain management. It doesn’t matter what kind of company you work for or what kind of proposals you do. I just finished working on a staffing proposal where I used all five. I’ve also used them on health care, research, financial, non-profit, entertainment, travel, and who knows how many other types of proposals.


What subjects have you learned about that helped improve your proposal writing? Join our group on LinkedIn so can discuss them. 


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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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