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Write better proposals- Use a simple story structure every time

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A successful business proposal begins with a compelling framework – a structure for your proposal that sells your ideas in the context of the customer’s needs, wants and preferences. It’s applied thought, not just an explanation of what you do.

Let’s Talk Proposals

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking too much about the specifics of a proposal as we begin to write.  It’s the most common weakness I encounter in all of the proposals and pitches I see . This concentration on what the writer does for a living, rather than what that expertise, when applied, will do for the reader; this accidental ‘I’ focus,  leads us into 2 types of ‘forgetting’–

  1. Forgetting the end-purpose– which is to show the reader how you, above all of the others, can help them achieve the results that they want- so they will buy from you.
  2. Forgetting the proposal’s purpose, which is, simply, to establish a dialogue with the reader, to help them see how they can fix their problems and achieve their goals, and lead them through an engaging and relevant unveiling of what you’ll do for them .

The most effective proposals and pitches establish precisely this conversation  with their audience, and that’s why my proposal structure is based upon it. Each element of this chat suggests a section essential to every business pitch:

Step 1- “We understand your requirements inside out”
The first thing you absolutely must show your client is that you understand their requirements in a great deal of detail; that you have as thorough an appreciation of what they are trying to achieve as they do themselves (perhaps even better than they do).

Many, even experienced, proposal writers undervalue the persuasive power of re-stating their own understanding of the client requirement – doing a good job of outlining the things that your client wants to achieve in their business can very often be the difference between winning and losing the sale.

Step 2-  “We have designed a great solution to your requirements”
Your first section sets out to convince your client that you have a good understanding of what they are trying to achieve. You now have their attention, so continue your conversation by describing the way in which you can address these needs – outline your solution. This is the key section of your proposal. You are, after all, writing the proposal to sell this fix.

So, your second proposal section will be a staple in any proposal format and should be called something like “The Proposed Solution”. This section is best shown visually with a diagram, supported by as few words as possible to describe the steps and show the benefits (to the client) of each of those steps- leave the details to the appendix.

Step 3-“Here’s why that solution will have so much value for your organization”
The client will certainly want to know just what is in your solution for them, what benefits will accrue to them from choosing you over your competitors.  It also allows you to show which parts of your solution and method will deliver value more than your competitors. Your business proposal format must support you by emphasizing the particular strengths of your solution, and minimize any weaknesses. You might also think to highlight (indirectly, of course) any weaknesses in your likely competitors’ approaches, because that will help you to differentiate you from them, and give your targets an opportunity to buy from you for the right reasons.

Step 4- “We will deliver all of these benefits for an investment of …”
Having established that you understand the requirement, that you have a good solution to these stated needs, and that your particular approach will be of particular value to your client, your client has a right know how much this solution is going to cost. Your fourth section will detail the costs associated with your approach, and for discussion purposes we will name it: “Investment”  Again this is best shown in tabular form stage by stage to help the client understand how the fee is  arrived at, and how each step will add value to the overall works.

This tabular ‘item-cost-benefit’ approach is useful because it will allow the client to see a number of things.  First how the total is arrived at, which will give them the opportunity to understand the process that you’re following and to see the stages all add value to the result they’ll get.  And it also allows you a fall-back position in negotiation should the client say ‘we like your approach but don’t like your price’- you can say…

‘Which part of the process do you feel is unnecessary?  Which part could you do yourself (to our specification)? Which keeps you away from talking overall discount and in 80% of cases leads to the client saying something like-

‘Oh well, we do like your approach, and we’re far too busy… Let’s just go ahead as it is…’

My suggestion would always be to detail only the key steps in the proposal and omit things like VAT (sales tax) and expenses from the totals.  Of course you should explain that these are ‘totals exclusive of VAT and expenses’, but then the client has all of the information they need.

Step 5- “I have detailed information to prove every one of the claims I just made”
Up to this point you have focused on communicating just one basic message – “we have the best possible solution to your requirements”. To communicate this message most effectively you should confine yourself to the main points that support this contention, staying away from excessive detail (Think of it as ‘clutter’) that might distract the client, drawing their attention off on a tangent.

In this section, include only as much detail as is necessary to support the main message you are trying to explain.

Many business proposals and pitches take an approach of cramming everything into the main body of the proposal – making the proposal overly heavy and difficult to read. To be effective all of the detailed technical material such as technical specifications, product descriptions, supporting research and so on, should be confined to appendices at the back of your proposal, or left as ‘optional extras’ in your pitch, with your main text making frequent reference to the presence of this supporting material in the “Appendices” section of your proposal or offering to go into detail if the client wants to, in the pitch, but suggesting that for brevity and interest they don’t.

Let’s hear that again then-

So, by establishing this simple “Need-Solution-Value-Costs-Proof” dialogue with your client, you end up with a basic business format for all of your proposals & pitches that will always contain at least five sections.

The figure below graphically illustrates this basic proposal model that you can now use as the basis of all of your future proposals. Besides the self-explanatory ‘Title Page & Table of Contents’ this figure also contains an additional section that has not yet been discussed – the “Executive Summary”.

The Executive Summary- or Prologue

The Executive Summary is a section that provides an overview of the total content of your proposal. It is designed for those people in your client organisation who do not have time to consider any more than the “highlights”. It is also designed to be a general introduction for other readers who may well read your proposal in its entirety- if you grab their attention from the start.

Think of your Executive Summary as the equivalent of what you find on the rear cover  of novels – a tempting and quick-to-read summary that provides the reader with what they need to ‘buy your story’ and enough interesting and tempting glimpses into the 300 pages of text therein,  to make them buy the book to read on, even if they hadn’t planned to.

You can build your Executive Summary using the headlines of the winning structure we’ve just been through – with a few lines summarising each of your completed main sections. Think of the main points you want each proposal section to make and ensure that these are briefly covered in this summary.  You can also provide references to the detail in the main body of the proposal (and hyperlink if you’re doing it in electronic form) to make it easy for the client to look in more detail if they’re tempted to.

After the ‘Solution’ section the Exec. Summary is arguably the most important section of any proposal – It should be so good that even if it is the only section that some key readers will bother to read, they’ll have enough knowledge that they could make a decision based on that alone if they had to. So it’s definitely worth investing the time in getting it right.

It’s a flexible structure too-

You can use the basic “‘Executive Summary-Needs-Solution-Benefits-Investment-Appendices’” structure for a one-page proposal for a £2000 project; and for 250 page RFP, £ multi-million type efforts.  It’s infinitely scalable depending on the needs of the job and the instructions you’ve received from buyer.

I can’t promise that adopting this winning business proposal format will result your loving proposal writing and pitching – but I can guarantee that you’ll get a vastly higher hit rate for your blood, sweat and (sometimes) tears.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps FTSE 100 companies to sell themselves, and their products better. Speech writer, Prezi trainer and designer, coach and consultant, Jim also finds time to be a proud father and husband.
Jim Harvey


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