Winning the Business

Fighting the Fog

What can proposal writers do to gain and retain their readers’ attention?

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Do your company’s proposals capture and retain the interest of the reader? In a live presentation, you can use body language and voice modulation to convey ideas and retain the audience’s attention. But in a proposal, how do you retain the audience’s attention?

Consider the below graphic that shows how the level of control you have on an audience is inversely proportional to the level of details present.

Figure 1. Compared to a presentation, a written proposal provides more detail and less control over its audience (image from Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology).

To gain and retain readers’ attention, I developed the following advanced reader’s copy (ARC) method of writing and reviewing content. This approach allows you to write content that creates interest, enhances attention spans, and improves the impression left on the reader.

Argument

One way to persuade someone to do something is by providing a sound argument to do so; however, most proposals lack sound arguments.

Although there can be many reasons for this, a significant reason is a lack of structured writing. Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle is a proven method to fix this. Using this principle, you can write content your customers will find easy to comprehend.

Figure 2. Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle can be used to plan and write more efficiently.

I also strongly recommend using content plans, as recommended in the APMP Body of Knowledge (BOK), to ensure you are constructing content that is clear, concise, and relevant.

Readability

There are no Pulitzers for proposals! My research and studies show that the use of jargon, long sentences in the passive voice, and paragraphs that exceed six sentences contribute to a dramatic loss of reader attention. Other studies show that readership increases by 43% to 60% when you reduce complexity from a ninth-grade level to a sixth-grade level.

There are no Pulitzers for proposals! … The use of jargon, long sentences in the passive voice, and paragraphs that exceed six sentences contribute to a dramatic loss of reader attention.

The authors of the book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots found that a document filled with jargon was 100% of the time perceived as pretentious and obnoxious, while a document with no jargon was always perceived as likeable and empathetic.

Reducing the complexity of reading isn’t too hard. In fact, Microsoft Word allows writers to assess the complexity of their writing through readability statistics. You can use the Flesch-Kincaid index to tell you how many years of education your reader would need to have in order to comprehend what you’ve written.

Figure 3. Do not let your proposal exceed a Flesch-Kincaid index score of 14.

Critique

The BOK recommends using horizontal reviews to assess the proposal’s responsiveness, strategy, and relevance. Use vertical reviews to assess the proposal’s logic, focus, and readability.

Figure 4. Use these checklists to critique proposals.

Additionally, I recommend that the proposal be reviewed for the “Seven C’s of Effective Communication”: clearness, conciseness, completeness, consideration, concreteness, correctness, and courteousness.

Ensure that you use checklists during the writing process and the review process. This will help both authors and reviewers do their jobs well.

Conclusion

An interesting proposal has to gain and retain attention. The ARC method of writing helps you do exactly that.

Figure 5. The ARC method of writing can enhance interest, attention span, and impression.

Lack of reader attention causes confusion and makes your proposal foggy. Keep your proposal fog-free; use the ARC principles to keep your readers engaged. All the best writing your next proposal!

Editor’s note: This article is based on the author’s research paper “Combatting Fog in Business Proposals.”


Martin Chekuri is an India-based proposal writer for Shipley Associates. He can be reached at martin.chekuri@shipleywins.in.

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