Proposal Show Versus Tell: Play to Win

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Writing proposals is an art form; there is infinite potential to improve, even if you consider yourself to be an expert. The challenge involved is one of the things I love about the process.

My experience writing proposals – whether for technology consulting, non-profit grant submittals, or multi-million dollar infrastructure projects – has taught me one massively important lesson:

You cannot “tell” your way into a win.

You might be the world’s most convincing writer. Or maybe you know beyond a doubt that your team can solve your client’s issue in a way that no other team can. Maybe these are both true AND you have the lowest price. None of it will truly translate to the reviewers if you tell them these things.

For example, have you ever written or read any of these phrases?

“Our team brings innovative solutions to the most complex problems.”

“Project Manager Joe Smith has experience on projects of similar size and scope.”

“Our solutions are developed outside of the box.” (more on this one later)

If you have, you’re not alone. The fact is that we all have. Work is busy, proposals are time consuming, and someone on the team always seems to throw these phrases into the mix. The problem with these phrases, and so many like them, is that you are telling your reader what to believe. After reading proposal after proposal, I bet reviewers get pretty tired of being told the same thing by every team.

I also bet that they don’t believe it.

Let the reviewer draw their own conclusion

Let’s say you visit a phenomenal new restaurant and have the best meal of your life. Are you going to recommend that restaurant to a friend because they told you how delicious their steak tartare is? Of course not! You concluded that the dish was delectable all on your own when you ate it. It means more to you because it is your thought.

The same can be said about your services. Let the reviewer experience a little of what you have to offer by allowing them to decide – on their own – that you are the one to beat.

For example:

Instead of: Our team brings innovative solutions to the most complex problems.
Try: On a recent residential, two-lane project with similar stormwater issues, our team developed a multi-phased drainage plan which allowed us to finish the project ahead of schedule and reduce costs by avoiding flooding.

If I’m the reader and stormwater runoff is one of my concerns, I’m going to appreciate that this firm has creatively dealt with the same problem, in the same area, on the same type of property as mine. Every detail that is put into a sentence should pertain specifically to that client, for that project. Every detail.

Instead of: Project Manager Joe Smith has experience on projects of similar size and scope.
Try: Joe Smith’s experience in customized firewalls was critical in protecting the data of over 150,000 of WidgetStore’s customers during the retail hacker epidemic of 2016.

Practice makes (nearly) perfect when it comes to showing versus telling. An easy way to get started is to make a few simple switches at a time –  consider the following:

  • Stories are good; Stories with metrics are better.

  • Words are like money – spend them wisely and get the most bang for your buck.

  • Call out boxes are billboards – a couple are impactful, too many are clutter.

  • Avoid the “out of the box” oxymoron like the plague.

  • Believe in your services! You are going after this contract because you know you can fulfill it. There are certainly ways in which you offer unique advantages to your clients, so give them something fresh to review! Even if you are not awarded the contract, you will have made a fantastic impression!

It won’t happen overnight

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There will always be a bit of content in a proposal which you won’t have time to “prove.” Every time you work on a response, however, you can build upon changes you made the last time around. It’s tough to think that you company’s content will never be completely done, however that is actually a good thing! It’s an ongoing process of refining and improving your message, because when we are learning and changing, we are on the right track.

To ensure that you don’t lose the important advances you make, organize your content using a content management system –  don’t have one? No need to worry, it will be the topic of our next Hints & Tips post.


Happy communicating,