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The moment has arrived — your proposal draft is finally complete. Maybe you did most of the writing, or maybe you are a proposal manager and delegated the content to your technical and functional experts. Either way, you now have the all-important task of editing your proposal to make it leaner, cleaner and clearer. With an impending deadline and narrow timelines for internal review, your time and resources are limited, but even with quick turnarounds, there are a few things you can do to strengthen your proposal before it’s submitted. Here are four practices my company’s proposal team follows when preparing business proposals.
1. Orient to the customer.
When you propose your product or service to a potential customer, you want to emphasize how what you’re selling will benefit them specifically. An effective way to do that is to orient your language toward the customer, rather than your company or product. Let’s compare two versions of the same claim from a fictional company’s proposal to a municipal customer:
- Version 1: “App Tech’s Productive Time app has been proven to increase productivity by 40% for office workers.”
- Version 2: “The City of Clientdale will experience an increase in productivity of up to 40% for its secretarial workers with App Tech’s Productive Time app. This addresses the issue of excessive downtime among Clientdale’s back-office staff, as stated in your RFP.”
While Version 1 boasts a specific benefit offered by the product, Version 2 orients that benefit to the customer’s situation. A decision maker reading the second example immediately understands the benefit offered to their city, as the proposal even references one of their stated pain points. Clearly demonstrating that you understand the customer’s unique needs and that you can meet those needs with your solution inspires customer confidence.
2. Un-boilerplate your proposal.
It’s easy to get mentally drained from writing original content all day, so sometimes we insert a relevant section from an old proposal and move on. (We’ve all been there before.) Many companies, no matter the size or composition of their proposal staff, maintain some form of content library that ensures you do not have to start from scratch with each proposal and helps save time when composing a draft. While content libraries are beneficial, be sure to resist the urge to simply plug-and-play. Just as no two customers have exactly the same need, our proposed solutions to those needs should not be framed in exactly the same way. Even if two proposals rely on the same technical solution, the value proposition for that solution should differ in each case. When using material from your content library, do not just plop it in your proposal; edit it to reflect an understanding of the individual customer’s needs and a clear proposition for how your solution can uniquely address those needs.
3. Write for a middle-school audience.
It is generally considered a best practice in business writing to write at a level your audience can understand. Technical jargon and needlessly complex language can not only confuse readers (who may not have specialized or technical backgrounds) but also frustrate and alienate them if they do not understand what they are reading. This can result in readers not connecting with your pitch or simply discarding your proposal altogether.
My review of best practices from professional writing organizations and proposal writing experts suggests it is best to aim for a middle school to high school reading level when writing proposals. Many word processing programs have built-in functions to check the reading level in a document. These tools can be helpful for identifying the complex language in your proposal, particularly if the tool you use provides sentence-level analysis. It also is helpful to request that your internal reviewers read slowly and with the purpose of identifying meaning. Ask your reviewers to read the proposal as though they know nothing about your company or solution. Is the meaning of every sentence clear? Does anything confuse them? Reading your proposal through the lens of a non-expert can be an effective way to identify areas where you can simplify and clarify your writing for the greatest possible impact. When in doubt, write so that an eighth grader can understand what you are selling.
4. Edit like it’s your magnum opus.
Depending on the structure of your company, the editing process may regularly be pushed to the last minute or avoided altogether, particularly if you don’t employ someone who’s a strong copy editor. No matter your deadline or situation, you should embrace editing as a necessary and critical part of the writing process. From your customer’s perspective, you may be one typo away from losing credibility and having your proposal tossed in the trash.
Don’t let avoidable errors sink your proposal. Use all the tools at your disposal. Programs such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs have built-in spelling and grammar checks, and editing tools such as Grammarly make helpful add-ons. Whenever possible, have someone else review your writing so they can catch errors you may miss. Treat every proposal like the special, labor-intensive treasure that it is, and edit it like it’s your magnum opus.
There are countless strategies and methodologies for writing winning proposals, many of which provide great value to organizations of all sizes. Once you establish practices such as these as habit, they become less daunting and easier to follow, regardless of your strength as a writer. No matter your industry, product or customer profile, these strategies can help you strengthen your proposals so that you can ideally win more business.
Nick Wilbourn has a lifelong love of language and has focused much of his professional life on written communication. He currently works as a proposal writer and freelances as a copy editor. Previous jobs have included a middle school English teacher, obituary writer and academic writing tutor.