Fifteen Rules of Proposal Writing

By Frank Lynn November 05, 2007

Proposals are driven by rules – we make sure to answer all of the RFP questions in a compliant manner, to submit the specified number of proposal copies to the right location in a correctly labeled package by the given date, and to abide by RFP stipulations regarding font size, format, attachment naming conventions, and page count. But when it comes to the creation and polishing of content, the only “rule” we’re usually given by our customer is “No fluff!”

But what are the rules of great proposal crafting? How do you apply the “marketing spin” without writing the “marketing fluff?” Most everyone knows great proposal content when they see it; but it’s difficult to instruct people on how to create it. For those of us who thrive in the rule-driven environment of proposals, the following rules will help ensure that your proposal, and your company make it to the short-list.

Rule 1: Write to win themes and discriminators.

Before you can start writing proposal content, you must know the win themes and discriminators. These are usually determined at the onset of the proposal at the kickoff meeting by the Project Sponsor (the highest ranking person in the company who supports the project). Win themes are derived from what you hear from your customers—their wants and desires – what types of problems they are looking for your company to solve.

are those things that your company can do better than its competitors. Additionally, when selling services – discriminators can even be people – such as nationally recognized leaders in their fields employed at your company – “rock stars” or
“rocket scientists.”

Rule 2: Write to the value proposition; don’t go straight into technical details.

RFPs are often written vaguely, and it may appear that the customer wants to know the minutia of how your company would perform the complexities of a given task. Although the RFP may be written is such a way, this is usually not the case.

As a proposal writer, you must keep in mind that what your customer is really asking is how your company is going to help them achieve their goals. This is writing a value proposition – before you tell how you plan to take on a particular task, write to the fact that you first know the ultimate goal of tasks, and the value your company will bring in accomplishing this goal.

Playing to win: The football analogy.
To use a Football analogy, think of your customer as the head coach of a football team who was down by 7, and they just made a 6-point touch down. They can now either go for tying the game by kicking in an extra point, or go for the win by running a two-point conversion. As proposal writers, we are the offensive coordinator. You must first tell your customer if your company thinks we should go for the tie, or go for the win. Since it is understood that the ultimate goal is to win the game, you must first justify our decision ongoing for the win or trying to tie. Is our kicker very good? How about the quarterback and receiver? Has our team made any two-point conversions in the past? Have we missed any kicks in the past? If we go for the tie, will our team be too tired to effectively play in overtime?

Only after you have justified your decision and the strategy behind it, can you draw out the play from the playbook—(i.e, the technical proposal minutia).

Rule 3: Use the Trust Equation to create proposal content.

In his book “The Trusted Advisor [1],”Harvard Business school professor David H. Maister argues that trust is the most crucial aspect to developing business with clients, and has created an equation to explain how trust is gained in business:

Trust = Credibility, Reliability, and Intimacy

Self Orientation

Maister’s approach is applicable to the proposal creation process.

To establish credibility and reliability, you must use examples - tasks your company has performed for the customer in the past (if it is an existing customer), or similar work your company has performed for other customers. Frame this in terms of a problem you helped the customer overcome; or the business value your company brought to the customer.

To establish intimacy, you must demonstrate that you fully understand the customer’s problems and challenges, and the direction in which the customer wants to head—and that you understand this more than any of your competitors. Simply attaching a high-level “What We Heard”vs. “What We’re Proposing” Grid with three to five high level bullet points outlining your solution to the customer’s challenges has helped win large, complex RFP-led deals.

For self-orientation, you must show that your company puts its customer’s needs and agendas ahead of its own – that your company understands that client service comes first – that your company can only succeed as an organization if its helps its customer to succeed. (A good example of this is taking on extra work during the course of an existing contract). In proposal writing, it is important to make sure the customer’s name appears in the proposal more often than the name of your company. Write more about the customer, and less about your company.

Rule 4: Don’t be afraid to repeat the win themes throughout the proposal.

Proposals are often cut up into sections and distributed to different reviewers. Therefore, it is okay to repeat win themes and call attention to past performance examples throughout the proposal. According to Dr. Jayme A. Sokolow, proposal reviewers take, on average, a little over six minutes to make a decision.[2] Your win theme may be the only thing the reviewer remembers.

Rule 5: Proposals need graphic enhancement to break up text.

Proposals should have a graphic or call out box on at least every other page to break up text. According to Edward Tufte, a leading expert on informational graphic design and professional at Yale University,well-designed data graphics are usually the simplest and at the same time the most powerful.[3] Charts with metrics that substantiate what is stated in the proposal should be included, as well as flowcharts to show processes and procedures. Organizational charts should be a part of every proposal asking for account team or management biographies. Additionally, Quality Improvement graphics should be a part of every proposal’s quality improvement section. Finally, if there are appropriate pictures of people, such as client service team members—those should also be included in the proposal.

Rule 6: Don’t use “weasel words.”

The term 'weasel word' was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt,who observed that weasels have the ability to evacuate the contents of an egg while leaving the shell completely intact – making an egg look full when it was empty. Weasel words have this same affect on proposals. At first glace a statement looks like a meaningful claim, but weasel words discount reliability, and leave the customer wondering if your company will really do what it says it will.

Proposal sentences need to be declarative and state what your company intends to do when it wins the business. Often this is difficult because there are many variables that the RFP does not explain, or that may depend on things that are beyond your company’s control or even the customer’s control – such as the amount of funding available for the work.

Avoid using weasel words at all costs – words such as “could,” “should,” “may,” and “perhaps.” Factions are contingent on other variables, it is best to qualify those other variables to show that your company is flexible and has a plan of action that depends on forthcoming information and events. Often, this can be accomplished by starting or ending a sentence with “At (Customer Name’s) request…” or “At the direction of (Customer Name)…” or“…should (Customer Name) choose this option.”

Rule 7: Remember the glass is always half full.

This old adage on the power of positive thinking is especially important in proposals. In proposals content, it is important for all the sentences to have a positive spin, and to avoid using verbiage that makes it sound like your company falls short by creating an imaginary benchmark that it fails to meet. This is especially important for sentences involving metrics. For instance, state, “Our customer satisfaction rating is over 85%,” not “Our customer satisfaction rating is nearly 90%.”

Rule 8: Use bulleted lists and flowcharts.

Use bulleted lists when:

  • You have three or more things you want to emphasize

  • You have compound sentences with more than two parts

  • You are providing a list of accomplishments, customers or people

Rule 9: Use bulleted lists consistently.

Many grammar experts recommend that you start each bulleted item in a bulleted list with a capital letter; and that you punctuate bullet points containing independent clauses, dependent clauses, or long phrases. Whatever style you use, make sure that it is consistent throughout the proposal.

Rule 10: Use callout boxes and taglines.

Use callout boxes to highlight proposal content and break up long sections of text.

When to Use Callout Boxes

  1. To highlight quotes attesting to your company’s customer service/greatness
  2. To enhance bulleted lists
  3. To create a shaded box around taglines

A tagline can be a one line sentence, phrase, or series of freestanding one-sentence words that you add to the end of your messages. Just as watching a commercial for Burger King punctuated with “Have it your way” may inspire a craving for a Whopper, a tagline should leave your customers hungry for your product or service. Punctuating a proposal section with a tagline that sums up the message your company is trying to convey is also very relevant – it puts the “polish on the apple.”

Tagline Examples:

  • XYZ Company is both a pioneer in creating best practices and an innovator in effective knowledge sharing.
  • XYZ Company. The leader in VOIP.
  • XYZ Company. Vision. Reliability. Results.

Rule 11: Spell out acronyms in each proposal section.

Both the Chicago Manual of Style[4],and the Associated Press Stylebook [5]advise writers to spell out acronyms at the beginning of a written work. Because reviewers often review different sections of the proposal, it is important to spell out abbreviations in each proposal section. Although industry-specific abbreviations may be well known, you may never entirely know the level of expertise of those who review your proposal. Additionally, there is also the potential for acronyms to stand for two separate things—for instance in the information technology arena, “ASP” stands for both “Active Server Page” and “Application Service Provider.”

Rule 12: State your company’s name.

To “brand” the company name in the minds of your customers, it is important to use your company name when describing what it will do.

In instances where there are a lot of declarative sentences about your company, it is okay to change back and forth from your company’s name and “we”; additionally, it is okay to do so in instances when your company is mentioned twice in a single or compound sentence, i.e., “XYZ, Inc. is the largest service provider in the nation; we have been in existence for over 20 years.”

Rule 13: What tenses to use and credentializing your company.

RFP language often asks that you respond to the scope of work or contract language. The response should state that your company is willing to do the work, is able to do the work, and has done the same or similar work in the past. Since you are writing a proposal, it is best to use the future tense, not future conditional, i.e., “XYZ, Inc. will” instead of “XYZ Inc. would,” in describing what your company will do. Ina proposal, this type language seems more declarative and less weaselish, and it shows your customer your company’s confidence because the tense presupposes that your company has already won the business. It is okay to use different tenses in the same section, so long as they do not alternate and follow this formula:

  • Future tense first. First, state what your company will do.

  • Present tense second. Second, state what your company is doing right now.

    (If your company is not doing anything right now that relates to what it will do—then skip to examples of what your company has done in the past.)

  • Past tense last. Use this to credentialize your company.

Example of all three: (1) “XYZ Inc. will host a multimedia training session on the topic of SOX 404 for stakeholders in the Public Accounting community. (2) Our training manager, Terrance Phillips, currently leads a monthly communications training program that educates Accounting Firm personnel on industry changes caused by SOX 404. (3) In the Spring of 2003, our company sponsored the first nationwide SOX 404 training conference in response to the newly enacted law.

Rule 14: How to write biography briefs.

Biography briefs are often used both in proposed management plans and proposal narratives to identify who will be doing what for a given task, and why that person is qualified to do it. In writing biography briefs, the following formula should be followed unless stated otherwise by the RFP. Since a biography is a mini-resume it is best to use a bulleted list with the following key information:

  • Person’s: name, academic credentials, title, position, and how many years they have worked for your company, or in the industry for which you are touting their expertise

  • Person’s job responsibilities at your company

  • Three to seven examples of their accomplishments as related to the RFP tasks that your company is proposing that it will perform.

  • One bullet with a list of similar clients served, projects worked on, and publications related to the tasks that person will perform for the customer

Rule 15: Edit, edit and edit.

Since a proposal is a written representation of the company, it should be free from grammatical errors, graphical errors and misspellings. Additionally, if written by multiple collaborators, pains must be taken to ensure that terms are used consistently throughout, and information is not repeated (unless an RFP is written in such a way where the same information is asked for repeatedly – in which case you give the customer what they want). In addition to having a independent proofreader (someone who did not work on the proposal) review the document as a “second set of eyes,” you should also do a “white glove review” after the proposal is printed to ensure that all pages printed out correctly, and there are no ink smudges or formatting issues caused during the proposal’s printing.

[1] Maister, David H., “The Trusted Advisor.” Touchstone: New York,2001.

[2] Sokolow, Dr. Jayme A. “How Do Reviewers Really Evaluate Your Proposal? What the Cognitive Science of Heuristics Tells Us About Making Decisions” APMP Spring/Summer 2004.

[3] Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Graphics Press, Chesire, CT, 1997.

[4] “Chicago Manual of Style,14th Edition.” The University of Chicago Press: Chicago,1993

[5] “The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, 6th Trade Edition.” Addison-Wesley, New York,1996.

Frank Lynn

Frank Lynn

Frank Lynn is a Global Program Manager for Services Proposal Content at Cisco. He has managed winning, large, complex, multimillion dollar, cross-functional proposal efforts and created proposal response infrastructure for American Medical Response, Ernst & Young, and Success Factors.

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