Sprinkles Are for Winners: Writing Creatively to Better Connect with Your Customers

Writing creatively can help you craft more compelling, compliant proposals and connect with your prospective customers in a deeper way. To be completely clear, though, writing creatively in proposals is not creative writing. While one often begins on “a dark and stormy night,” the other enlightens your customer on why your business is the right fit for theirs. Even better, it doesn’t take a lot of extra preparation or a secret recipe. As you prepare to write, adding a quick ‘Shred/Search/Sprinkle’ process will help you dig deeper into your prospective customer’s corporate culture, message, and goals. Sprinkling these insights throughout your text amplifies your understanding of the customer and your company’s alignment with their corporate and RFP goals.

Here’s how it works:

1.   Shred

First, ‘shred’ the RFP to identify repeated words, phrases, and themes.  The scope of work mentions “efficiency” six times? It’s fair to assume that’s important to the customer, and your ability to deliver it should be included in your response. Your goal is to sprinkle these key words and themes throughout the proposal to demonstrate you both read and understand the RFP and the customer’s requirements.

Writing creatively is not finding ways to regurgitate chunks of the RFP. Too much repetition – or repetition that is irrelevant to your win themes and solution – can give the impression you didn’t put much thought or effort into your response at all, and your scores will reflect that.

2.   Search

Once you’ve written down key terms and phrases, ‘search’ the customer website and social media presences and those of their competitors. Look at information related to their specific industry and/or market. If available, read the company’s value statement and scan a few of their latest investor briefs. Do the key terms/phrases make an appearance here, too? How does the customer describe themselves and the work they do? What are their stated overall corporate goals and commitments? Do your company’s corporate goals align with theirs? How can you authentically incorporate these connections into your cover letter or Executive Summary?

Analyze the writing mechanics. Is their copy direct, or do they use a softer tone? Formal or informal? Is the text verbose or to the point? Consider sentence length and rhythm. Shorter sentences and bullet points tend to convey immediacy. Do they use a lot of graphics and images, or do they primarily communicate with text? Understanding how your customer communicates will help you determine the best ways to communicate with them.

Don’t forget to think about the unwritten aspects that influence every business: the societal and cultural norms that shape the industry and environments in which the customer sits. Some companies will be open to more creative business writing. Others won’t. For example, a Japanese financial services company that is used to very formal, highly-structure responses could be irritated by writing that doesn’t get right to the point. It might spur concerns that your company won’t take the work, and by extension, their business, seriously. If you have doubts about how your customer would receive and perceive a more creative approach, it’s best to err on the side of traditional business writing.

3.   Sprinkle

If you’ve decided to move forward with integrating creative elements, the final step is to ‘sprinkle’ your findings into your proposal outline and response. Build in the themes and key words and use them to amplify your proof points and differentiators. Speak to who your prospective customer believes they are to emphasize your understanding of what makes them tick. Try using industry-specific words to punch up headers and subheads. For example, ‘Accelerating cost savings for ABC Airlines’ or ‘Making magic happen for Mammoth Mouse Icon International Entertainment Company’. But don’t get carried away and turn ‘sprinkle’ into ‘deluge’. Too much wordplay can come off as inauthentic and insincere.

As in proposal writing and life, sprinkles won’t turn a muffin into a cupcake. Or, as Great British Bakeoff baker extraordinaire Paul Hollywood would say, you must prioritize substance over style. Even the most exciting decorations cannot save a half-baked cake, and even the most dynamically written prose can’t save a half-baked proposal. Your first duty as a proposal professional is to make sure you keep the customer’s needs, goals, and pain points at the center of every part of your proposal. Compliant and compelling always come before creative. Just look at the dictionary.

When applied thoughtfully (and judiciously), the ‘Shred/Search/Sprinkle’ process can help you develop a more nuanced understanding of your customer. What you learn will determine your path forward in writing: traditional/formal, creative, or somewhere in between. Regardless of the path you take, you’ll be able to better connect to your customer and move towards being more than a product supplier or service provider- a strategic advisor.

And that’s having your (cup)cake and eating it, too.

Kate M. Schaefer, CF ES-M BPW-M APMP, CAPM has 18 years of experience writing and managing commercial and federal proposals. When she isn’t writing, you can find her hanging out on the lake with her husband and hound.

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