“Send me a proposal,” these are words you are probably all too familiar with. Yes, communicating ideas verbally can sell them well, but people usually also need something on paper that they can refer back to, and that needs to be just as compelling as your in-person pitch; this is where a lot of people get tripped up. A proposal is so much more than just regurgitating your words onto the page, it represents you, your brand and your idea/business in your absence. It is a tool to tell your business’ story and many times you only get one chance to tell it, so it has to be done right.
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So where do you begin with writing your proposal? Well, as with most documents, you start with the introduction/overview/executive summary, but before we even put the first word to paper it’s vital to plan out the structure of the entire proposal first. This step is extremely helpful because by first planning what you’re going to say and the order you will say it in, you can better conceptualise the story you are going to tell which will help the document flow better and also help you avoid repeating the same information unnecessarily. Telling a story with your proposal is so important and I think this is something that is too often neglected in business writing. People remember and respond more to stories, and if you can tell a convincing one through your proposal you have a much better chance of getting whatever you are asking for.
So back to actually writing your proposal: the introduction. This is arguably the most important part because if there is one segment that your potential client, investor or partner is going to read, it’s this one. What you say in your introduction will usually determine whether a person will bother reading the rest of your proposal, so it needs to be informative, but also interesting and engaging without being too wordy (keeping it to maximum of two pages) — it’s a rather delicate balancing act.
The introduction is, in its most basic form, a summary of your proposal but summarising does not mean including every single thing, just pick the most important aspects of your idea. What counts as important will differ for each proposal, but generally you will need to include a captivating opening line (or two) that highlights why the reader should care about your idea/business and the problem you are solving; a brief explanation of your idea/business and why it’s valuable; how becoming a client, partner or investor will be beneficial; and financial highlights, if applicable.
After the introduction there isn’t a set rule on what comes next, this will depend on what the best way of telling your particular story is. If you are pitching a social enterprise, for example, you may want to first give some context about the social problem you will solve, and if you are pitching a purely commercial business, then you would likely want to get right into the details of your company and what you do. How you arrange your proposal is up to you, but these are the key things that must be communicated in the body of the document (in no particular order):
- A description of who you are, what you are selling or what you do, and how you do it;
- The deliverables from engaging with you;
- The market potential of your idea (this mostly applies for investment proposals), ie market size, market conditions, how those conditions may work in your favour and how you will mitigate against those that work against you;
- The impact of your idea/business either for the communities you’ll be working with in the case of social enterprises, or the impact/benefit for the client or partner; and
- Financial information such as costs, pay outs or financial statements where relevant.
There are numerous ways of getting this information across and it largely depends on what and who the proposal is for, so I won’t prescribe anything specific. The order you choose just needs to make sense with each preceding section setting the stage or giving context for the next (like a story), and with the value proposition being clearly communicated throughout the document. It’s also key that you keep it as short as possible and relevant. Each proposal should be tailored to whoever it is intended for. You could sell the same product or service to individual and institutional clients, but the value proposition to each may differ, so your proposal for each type of customer should be different and reflect why it’s of value to them.
Proposals are pretty simple and straight forward but an effective proposal requires a little finesse. As I stated, this is essentially your representative in paper form, so it needs to sound right, look right and adequately push your idea for you without you having to say a word or even being there. Your proposal needs to represent your voice, your look, your vision and your (or your company’s) personality, and it should bring your idea to life on the page.
l At Amras Communications (which is a business writing consultancy I run, in case you are new to this column) we do a lot of work around proposal writing and we really enjoy getting to tell our clients’ stories. If you have a proposal you need reviewed or you need help putting one together, we’re always happy to help, just contact us on +263787722016 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.