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How to write readable reports and winning proposals: part 5: persuasive external proposals.

Effective proposals stole relevant benefits strongly in the Executive Summary and back them up crisply in the detail sections.

Writing a formal proposal for an external customer can be a daunting task that sends people scrambling for help. In particular, standard formats and "canned" sections seem to offer safety.

Unfortunately, these safe approaches are almost guaranteed not to work, because they violate fine core requirement of a persuasive proposal: a precise fit between benefits offered and perceived needs of the customer: Since each customer's situation is special, no all-purpose strategy can be effective. Instead, you need an individual approach.


What are the things that really work with proposal readers? Here are the two that come up most often:

* An executive summary that states the benefits of your solution strongly and ties them clearly to the customer's needs

* A proposal body that backs up the claims of the executive summary crisply and without technobabble

Your first step is to study the customer's needs as expressed in the "request for proposal," if there was one. (Otherwise, do your own thorough research on the customer's situation.) People usually spend too little time on this stage of proposal writing; instead, they waste time writing irrelevant detail in hyper-technical language.

Next, identify the solutions you can offer for the customer's needs, and describe them in a trial executive summary. Then use that summary as your guide in developing the rest of the proposal.

Typical proposal components include the following:

* Transmittal Letter

* Executive Summary

* Background and overview

* Technical objectives

* Work plan

* Related experience

* Key personnel

* Facilities and equipment

* Schedule

* Cost or budget

* Conclusion

However, the actual titles and order must carefully follow any guidelines laid out in the request for proposal.


What makes writers labor for hours, only to produce unfocused, overdetailed proposals? We: have observed four common reasons:

1. Getting overwhelmed, d by the demands of format. People fear proposals must be very formal and technically impressive. In truth, they just need to be persuasive--with no more technical detail than appropriate for the readers. In particular, remember that the front sections and Conclusion are read by everybody on the evaluation team, so keep them brief and non-technical. Reserve intricacies for the sections specifically labeled as technical.

2. Writing detail sections before formulating your main message in the summary. Beginning with the executive summary offers tremendous benefits, especially if the writing is a team effort. It focuses all details on key selling points. From the outset, your document will become leaner and more relevant, and you will have less cutting and editing to do.

3. Falling into "features" thinking. Especially if you have not managed to fit your benefits to the customer's needs, you may be tempted to switch to a features-based approach in order to "unload" all your selling points. Go back to the beginning: identify key needs and work out the winning strategy to till them.

4. Plain laziness. Pulling standard components off the shelf and slapping them together lot a proposal, after changing a few names and other incidentals, seems so much faster and easier. It is--but what good does it do? You might as well not write a proposal at all--that would be even easier and faster, and get the same result! As we said, proposals inherently need to be tailored to the special needs of the customer. Those needs are not sitting around on your shelf.

Cheryl and Peter Reimold have been teaching communication skills to engineers, scientists, and business people for 20 years. Their firm, PERC Communications (telephone +1 914-725-1024, e mail, offers businesses consulting and writing services, as well as customized in-house courses on writing, presentation skills, and on-the-job communication skills. Visit their web site at
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Title Annotation:The Language of Business
Author:Reimold, Peter
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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