Nobody reads wordy proposals. Here’s why.

More to the point, absolutely nobody reads proposals unless the words are properly punctuated by infographics, project shots, and cunningly structured white space. That’s a statistical fact, right?

Well, let’s see.

Imagine a client being audited over a string of costly failures that were traced back to questionable recommendations from their procurement team. Imagine that the team’s reason for failing to recommend a technically superior, cost-and-risk-comparable bid was, “Well, we didn’t read it all because there were too many … um … words.”

Really? Since when was “My job is too hard” an acceptable excuse for not doing it?

Let’s be adults here. Let’s assume our bid is compliant and all our content is where the client expects it. That said, it is procurement’s job to read submissions, no matter how many words they contain.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make it easier for them: we should. But that’s my point: it’s not the number of words that’s the problem.

It’s the way they’re written.

Wordiness be damned

I’ve been writing words for pay for most of my working life. Short copy, long copy, you name it. Proposals, we know, tend toward longer copy. Fair enough: if a client is to fork over a few million dollars for our services, they deserve some detail to justify their expense.

That’s why few things make me twitchier than a reviewer who takes one look at a page and casually decides, “It’s too wordy,” often without having read the wretched thing.

Can a response be too wordy? Well, of course: fluff, guff, geek, and weasel, right? But – from a client’s point of view – no text is too wordy if it helps them make the right decision for their business. It’s the words’ relevance and quality that counts.

We can agree, surely, that proposals are not an entertainment medium. Just as I must read every word of a client’s RFT documents to be sure I’m responding appropriately, so the client must read every word of my proposal to be sure they understand what I offer in response. Proposals that are legally binding on us are every bit as binding on our clients.

For evaluators, there is no way around reading. But you can’t make reading less of a burden by providing less of an answer. You make it less of a burden by making it more rewarding.

How do you reward readers? By teaching them something, by surprising them with insights into their situation, their challenges, and their opportunities. Imagine the evaluator as an angel on your shoulder, whispering Tell me something I don’t know, in a way I haven’t seen before …

Grab ’em by the eyeballs.

If you read fiction for pleasure, you will know within the first few pages of a novel whether or not the rest of it will waste your time. If it will, that’s because the novel has failed to grab you – not because it consists of page after relentless page of infographic-less words.

Same for proposals. Your challenge is not to second-guess whether your client will see your response as a foreboding wall of text. Your challenge is to write that text so it grips your reader from the first sentence and holds them tightly until the last, thus obviating the entire “wall of text” objection.

If the golden thread that clients follow is relevance, then the needle that weaves that thread is creativity. Creativity, dear reader, is another word for you and your distinctive personality. Creativity is how you speak to your client. You’re a person, not a corporation: speak accordingly. In a field of groveling sameness where every hand-picked, world-class team is delighted to respond, an attitude of confident advocacy will be a differentiator.

I’ve always been guided by the Strunk & White dictum: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

My job – the proposal writer’s job – is to make every word on every page earn its keep. The writer’s job is not to write content so embarrassed by its own existence that it will efface itself before the first person to wordiness-shame it. No. The writer’s job is to craft text so compelling to the client that the crime would be to add a graphic rather than to omit it.

One team I recently worked with won a multi-million dollar design job helped by placing first in the non-price criteria. The methodology was ten A4 pages of 10pt, single-spaced Arial text in two columns separated by a 0.6cm gutter, all within 1.5cm margins. These ten pages contained one 5cm x 9cm image, comprising a mere 1/120th of the response.

Maybe we shouldn’t have won.

And maybe bumblebees shouldn’t fly.

Don’t dream it, be it.

Yes, there are statistics about how graphics improve readability, and yada yada yada.

But there’s a gnarly part of me that cares nothing for stats. Averages say nothing about individual cases. A risk factor is a risk factor, not a guarantee factor. With the right delivery, even a phone book can be made to sound like poetry.

Graphics are an adjunct to text, not vice versa. They cannot substitute for poor writing. Sure, the best, most powerful graphics achieve what words cannot. But even the most compelling graphics cannot rescue a set of stunningly laid out words that say nothing.

You need words to tell a compelling story, to draw readers in, to increase their investment in your proposal. You need words to build your case, your argument, your value. They are your most fundamental tools of persuasion.

More words provide more opportunities to convince readers of your point of view, especially when you’re dealing with complex topics. The more the words, the more the detail and depth: these can be decisive factors in competitive tenders. Words help demonstrate thoroughness and expertise and can pre-empt the concerns a client might have.

Longer texts can help evoke emotion, a powerful tool in persuasion. This can be particularly effective in proposals aimed at non-profit organisations or related to social issues.

Words must strike a balance between brevity and clarity. While it’s important to be concise, it’s also important to clarify your meaning. Sometimes, that requires more words, not fewer.

With the right structure, tone, and pacing, words can keep readers interested and engaged rather than bored and turned away. Don’t write fewer of them to appease the wordiness police: write them better so that readers lap them up. Write them so well that your client would kill to read more.

This is your challenge as a writer. Don’t shy away from it: master your craft. Don’t whine that others won’t let you shine: write so well that no word can be cut without sacrificing strength.

There is only one form of wordiness in a proposal. It’s not text that’s “too long”; it’s text that adds no value to the person reading it.

If we can’t get evaluators to read and value every word we write, it’s nobody’s fault but our own.


About the Author

Mark Hislop is a Senior Winning Work Consultant at Aurecon Australasia. In a writing career spanning proposals, politics, and poetry, Mark is driven by the power of “Truth well told” to influence decision-makers and win business. A relentless “awe hunter”, he is currently obsessed with creating the perfect taco.

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