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How to make a great leap forward by throwing out your proposal and starting fresh

We have developed a very detailed, methodical, formal, and objective process for assessing the quality of a company’s proposals and discovering where they need to improve. Having seen it used in the real world a few times I can share with you what I’ve learned: If your proposals are descriptive, then you don't need a detailed assessment — you’re better off throwing out your past proposals and making a great leap forward by starting fresh than you are trying to incrementally improve what you already have.

Sometimes you need the detailed analysis to gain insight regarding where to improve. But at other times, you’re going to find so many issues that you won’t know where to start. This will be the case if your proposal is descriptive.

If your proposal is descriptive, you may not even realize that it’s critically flawed. It may sound just like every other business document you’ve ever read and seem nice and safe in its conformity. But if you think about it, that’s the last thing you want in your proposals. The winning proposal is, by definition, different. Winning by being a conformist who is a little better is like pulling your punches. That’s no way to reliably or consistently win.

How do you know if what you have is broken?

Of the dozens of criteria we use to assess proposal writing, a descriptive proposal is one of the easiest to spot. You know a proposal is descriptive if:

  • It’s primarily about describing you and your qualifications.
  • The majority of sentences start with “us,” “our,” or “we.”
  • It doesn’t address what the customer gets as a result of what you are describing.
  • What matters about what you are saying comes at the end of the sentences, paragraphs, or sections, instead of at the beginning.
A proposal that only describes your company and its offering is a bad proposal because it is written from your perspective and not the customer's perspective. It will lose when matched against an equivalent offering from a company that writes about why its attributes matter. Even though a descriptive proposal may have the same offering, the difference in what they can expect is huge from the customer's point of view.

Why descriptive proposals are lazy and arrogant

If you have a descriptive proposal then it may very well metion things that should matter — in the middle of describing yourself, without explaining why, and only if the customer takes enough time to think about you to realize how it could apply to them. That is why a descriptive proposal is not just lazy, it’s arrogant. 

Good proposal writing is not about spoon-feeding the customer with explanations of how your qualifications will benefit them, it’s about talking about what matters. And what matters is not you, when you were founded, your list of other customers, the names of who is on your team, how many employees you have, your uniqueness, your pleasure at submitting a proposal, or how much money your company made last year. If any of those things (or the countless other qualifications or requirement responses you’ve described in your proposal) do matter, then what the customer wants to hear is why they matter and how that translates into them being able to trust you to deliver.

Your qualifications substantiate your ability to deliver what the customer actually wants. Your qualifications are not, themselves, what the customer wants. When the customer says in the RFP that they want you to describe your qualifications, what they are really saying is that they feel those qualifications are something you need to have to be a credible supplier.  They don't want the qualifications per se, they just want to know they are actually going to get what you are promising to deliver.

Why it’s more efficient to start fresh

If you have a descriptive proposal, nearly every sentence will require major surgery. The object, sequence, and context will all have to be changed. This means that there will be more things changed than left alone. It will probably take longer to edit, rearrange, and fix what you have than it will to type something new.

You’ll get better results if you start fresh

Not only will it take longer to fix what you have, but even if you fix it what you end up with will not be as effective. If your proposal is descriptive, then the primary conclusions, major points, and overall story are either missing or wrong. If you try to fix what you have, you can improve the sentence structure, but you won’t end up with something that tells the right story.

Starting fresh means throwing out what you have and saying to yourself: “This time I’m going to write it from the customer’s perspective. So why have they asked for what they did? Why does it matter? What do they need to know to make a selection between vendors? What is the first thing I would want a vendor to tell me if I was the buyer?” Then you have to figure out what you can say to address what you think are their concerns, and how to work the details in as supporting points.

The result of a proposal written like that will be far superior to any editing you might do to “fix” a descriptive proposal. For starters, it will tell a story instead of simply being a response to a list of requirements. It will go faster and produce better results than if you try to achieve the same thing by editing what you already have. Along the way you’ll throw out a ton of business jargon and double-speak that’s designed to obfuscate and hide accountability.

Building on the right foundation

Starting fresh forces you to confront what you know and what you don’t know about the customer, the opportunity, and the competitive environment. The fundamental question is not “What do I need to say about the topic?” The fundamental question should be “If I was receiving this proposal, what would I be looking for?” That should be the first thing they see and everything else they read should substantiate it. Since they are probably looking for more than one thing and there may even be multiple people looking for multiple things, this may require some serious thought. It will probably require some research.

Either you will be in a position to conduct that research, or it is already too late. If it is too late, you can’t avoid those topics. You can’t skip the part about writing your proposal from the customer’s perspective just because you don’t really know the customer that well. You have to fake it. That’s right — you must make assumptions, give them what you would want and hope they feel the same way, or Google the customer and assume that what you read in their press releases is how they actually feel. Even if you can’t do a perfect job of emulating the customer, you still have to make the attempt if you are going to submit a proposal that’s more than just you talking about yourself.

The best thing to talk about is results. After that, they need to believe that you’ll actually be able to deliver those results. You just want to make sure, as best you can, that you’re promising the right results and that your ability to deliver them is credible. This is, fundamentally, what your proposal needs to be about, and by starting fresh you can achieve that.


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By Carl Dickson, Founder of

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