by Doug Stern, Jaclyn Landon
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. (Article update Oct. 2021.)

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 write 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. They will not only maximize your chances to stand out and land the job but also manage the risks.
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.
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 the decision-makers who are reading your proposal include techies and non-techies, 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.
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.
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.
Do any one of those suggestions, and you’ve gone a long way toward setting yourself apart.
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 potential client 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 proposed solutions might end up being shopped somewhere else.
Maybe you can justify buying some of the great proposal software out there. When chosen wisely, proposal software is a great tool. For example, it might provide easily customizable proposal templates that save time 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:
Also consider the following:
But even the most technologically sophisticated software can’t fill in the blanks for you. That takes doing everything else right.
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.
How to Write a Killer Proposal

RFP Benchmarks: How Much Time and Staff Firms Devote to Proposals

How to Write and Respond to RFPs: Some Best-Practices

Continue reading “Six Keys to Writing a Great Proposal” … Read the full article
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Doug Stern ( is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or
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