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So, you've decided to submit a proposal.

Maybe you're the incumbent with a very happy client or in a pack, or somewhere in between.

Maybe somebody threw a request for proposal (RFP) over your transom. Or you were invited to respond to an RFP. Or, you've done it the hard way—by having a sustained business conversation with a prospect about what the prospect needs.

However you got there, you're looking for ways to create a proposal that sets you and your company favorably apart. Ways that capture the great things you have to offer. And do you no harm.

Here are six suggested proposal writing tips and best-practices intended to not only maximize your chances to stand out and land the job but also manage the risks.

1. Be responsive

If your proposal is the result of an RFP, you've been given a recipe. Follow it precisely.

Well, at least be very cautious about how much you improvise. Remember that you're getting points for showing how well you color inside the lines—and how well you listen.

The paradox is that RFPs often ask (or expect) you to demonstrate your creativity, problem-solving skills, and the like. And you want to break out of the pack, somehow. The trick is to find the middle path, one that fills in the RFP's required blanks while showing that your right hemisphere is alive and well.

No RFP? There's more freedom if you're not working within the framework of an RFP.

There's also more responsibility. That's because you not merely have to follow the path, you also have to help define it.

If you're working ad hoc, it's important to be clear about what your prospect wants, about the issues your prospect wants addressed, about any history with other vendors, and so on; otherwise, you're just guessing.

That kind of clarity requires three things.

First, do your homework. Research the prospect's business and industry. Brains and charm alone won't get you invited into anything sustainable.

Second, ask questions, and listen. If you've done your homework and are asking the right questions, your prospect will practically write your proposal for you.

Finally, use caution. (See key No. 4 for more about the risk of giving away the farm.)

2. Use plain English

Not all RFPs are the same. But even the most technical Web-development or civil-engineering proposal had better be readable and engaging. That's especially true if techies and non-techies are sharing the buying decision, which is often the case.

So write the way you speak. Avoid jargon, unless it's responsive to something in the RFP (and even then, use it sparingly). Let yourself connect with your reader the same way you would if you were face-to-face.

Relax.

Go on a word diet. Start by asking yourself, Why am I writing this? Then, Who's reading it? And so on.

By the time you're finished, you've put every word, sentence, and paragraph through the wringer. You've examined their need to exist and their proper place in the landscape of the page.

In other words, you've been thematic.

3. Use your whole brain

Being responsive is a given. Using the right words will help, too, by making sure your proposal gets read and is remembered well.

Your readers, however, use both sides of their brains to some extent. They're open to communications that appeal to the cognitive as well as the emotional.

So pay attention to the way your proposals look and feel.

  • Consult a graphics professional to design a template for you. Ask for something that looks more like a magazine and less like a legal brief. If your proposals are produced in-house, get something that corresponds to your hardware, software, and humanware capabilities.
  • Use pictures that help tell your story. Studies say that an arresting graphic is the first thing the eye goes to on a page. Extra points go to any image with people in it.
  • Write captions for any images. They're the second thing we see on a page. This is prime real estate, somewhere you can underscore something important in your text that will get read and will be remembered.
  • Use "boxed" callouts, another eye-catching device. Direct-mail experts understand this tactic.
  • Use the back cover. That's where magazines sell their most expensive ad space. Stick another picture and caption there, and add a testimonial or a boxed callout.

Do any one of those suggestions, and you've gone a long way toward setting yourself apart.

4. Don't overcook it

It's tempting to really make it less about you and more about your prospect. The keyword here is "caution."

You may, for example, believe it's a nice touch to put the prospect's logo on the cover of your proposal. But that can easily backfire unless you're using the same high graphic standards your prospect uses.

Unless you have a high-resolution version of the logo and a copy of the company's graphics protocols, think of another way to show you care. There's nothing worse than having a prospect look at your proposal cover and say, "What did they do to our logo!"

Be careful about giving away the farm. In your zeal to make it all about the other guy, you might be tempted to offer an idea or design for, or a solution to, a prospect's need. The risk is that those ideas, designs, and solutions might end up being shopped somewhere else.

5. Buy smart

Maybe you can justify buying some of the great proposal software out there. When chosen wisely, proposal software is a great tool, with easily customizable templates that save valuable time spent formatting proposals.

But it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. A little research up front will help you find the best software for your needs, saving you time and money along the way.

Take the time to identify your needs and match them with the features of various software packages:

  • Do you have several people contributing to the proposal? Then a Web-based application that provides easy access for multiple contributors will be helpful.
  • You'll also want to look for other collaboration features that enable a team to work together on a document. If you're the only one working on the proposal, a less complex application would serve you well.

Also consider the following:

  • Price. Don't let money be the only determining factor. With average prices ranging from $29 to more than $100, identifying your budget will go a long way toward guiding you to the right software.
  • A free trial. Many companies provide free trial versions of their proposal software. Though not as robust as the real thing, free trials are a good introduction that will help you determine whether it's the best software for you, without having to invest any money.
  • Guarantee. Any good software company will provide some quality assurance; for example, a money-back guarantee. If you do your research beforehand, you probably won't need to exercise it, but it's still nice that the option is there.

But even the most technologically sophisticated software can't fill in the blanks for you. That takes doing everything else right.

6. Remember the context

Proposals are often just table stakes. They get you in the game and, maybe, keep you in.

Winning means scoring well on a wide range of criteria—price, chemistry, trust, and a bunch of other tangibles and intangibles. A written proposal levels the playing field (a little) and promotes apples-to-apples comparisons among the competition.

A great proposal will serve you well, especially if you say you strive to be the best at everything you do. If the reality of what you submit doesn't align with your claims, then you're really selling upstream.

In other words, anything less than outstanding fails. It fails to set you apart. It fails to demonstrate your excellence. It fails to give you an edge at a time when you don't know what cards everybody else is holding.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Doug Stern (www.doug-stern.com) is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or stern.doug@gmail.com.

Jaclyn Landon (www.jaclynlandon.com) is a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant. Contact her at 949-872-2296 or writer@jaclynlandon.com.