The essentials of writing a smashing business proposal

Want to write a business proposal that converts? Here's how.

Writing a business proposal can be tricky – where do you start?

Developing a business proposal can be overwhelming. The key is to start with what you know, and develop it from there.

You know the ins and outs of your business better than anyone. You know the value you add. And you know why clients would be absolutely insane not to jump at the chance to work with you – right? Jot all of those things down in note form, high-five yourself, and then start thinking about the nitty gritty.

What are the different types of business proposals?

There are two types of business proposals – solicited and unsolicited.

A solicited proposal is one responding to a call for tender, or where a business has invited you to submit a proposal. You may be one of many who are invited to submit, and so the key is to stand out.

An unsolicited proposal is used when you have an idea, concept or project that you would like to propose to an organisation with the goal of gaining support, funding or developing an alliance. Even though there is no competitive bidding process, your proposal must still pack a punch to gain attention.

While the content and approach for each type of proposal is different, there are a few key essentials that are common to both solicited and unsolicited proposals that will significantly increase your chance of success.

 

Planning your business proposal

Understand the client.

Understanding the client and their needs is the most fundamental element of a successful proposal. If you don’t understand their problem, then how are you to propose a methodology to solve it? Undertake your due diligence and get to know their business intimately.

Prepare a summary.

Before you begin writing, summarise the concept in a few sentences. The better you can articulate your exact argument, the easier it is to flesh it out into a clear proposal. It’s a great tool to give you clarity of thought and provide direction for the overall document.

Don’t fall into the trap of substituting clarity and good structure with underdeveloped thinking, vague descriptions (or the opposite – I’ve seen some wordy, rambling explanations that I still can’t get my head around), and a heavy reliance on buzzwords and industry jargon (there are arguments for and against using jargon – I believe in treading a fine line by ensuring that the lay person can understand your document but still illustrating your industry expertise and job know-how).

If you can’t summarise your approach in a few sentences, you’re not ready to start writing.

Ensure you are clear on your value proposition.

Just like a great marketing campaign, a proposal is all about luring in your prospective partner by highlighting the benefits to them. How will an alliance with you benefit their organisation?

Many writers will make the mistake of documenting how they address specific criteria without aligning it to a specific benefit to the organisation. For example, it’s all well and good to be able to produce evidence of great mechanical work, but unless you specifically highlight the benefits this will deliver – such as less vehicle downtime and the resultant savings (both financial and reputation) from unexpected time off the road – then you aren’t capitalising on your value proposition and the benefits you offer. Which leads me to…

Develop your features and benefits message.

Always be conscious of your features and benefits messages when identifying your value proposition. By linking features (ie we have ISO 9000 accreditation) to consumer benefits (ie our products always meet +0.002 tolerances and 99.99% customer satisfaction), you can influence the customer’s perception of what they perceive as value (I call it the ‘which means’ formula). The more effective the features and benefits, the more clearly the customer realises that you understand their needs.

 

Writing your business proposal

Strive to communicate – not impress.

Use plain English and short, crisp sentences. Break up long paragraphs, use lists and headings to break up text, make the most of tables, and throw in the odd graphic to visually represent your thoughts and bring your concept to life.

I guarantee that the reader will be more impressed by clear and effective writing than they will be by big words and long, wordy sentences.

It’s a sales pitch – outshine your competitors.

A business proposal really is a form of marketing. It’s a sales document, designed to persuade and convert. It must, therefore, reinforce your strengths and openly address any potential reservations the client may have about hiring you.

To do this, you need to know how you stack up against the competition. Pitching against a much larger organisation? Focus on how you may be a specialist in the client’s field, or how you can focus intensely on solving their problem. Evidence can be a major drawcard here, so show specific examples of how you’ve solved this problem for others. Find your point of difference – why should they choose you?

Remove the fluff.

Be as concise as possible – fluff is a waste of brain space! Get to the point as quickly as you can.

Use a Table of Contents to refine your structure.

Structure is vital – always insert an automated Table of Contents to not only add credibility to your document, but also help with reviewing and refining the structure of your content. I love a good Table of Contents – it gives me a bird’s eye view of the document and helps me see the path I am building for my reader.

 

Designing your business proposal

Never, ever use a template.

A good business proposal is unique – it goes well beyond describing your company. Successful business proposals are tailored to look at exactly what the prospective client needs, and constructed to meet those specific needs and objectives.

One of the most common mistakes I see in writing business proposals is where clients rely on one template for all prospects, just changing the company name and contact information. Noooooooo! Even if you have a basic boilerplate, effective business proposals demonstrate to a prospect exactly how you will achieve the end goal for them.

Show your creative side.

Many people wrongly assume that, because you are writing business-to-business material, you need to be formal and stuffy. Wrong! There is always some little creative tweak you can make to ensure that you stand out. Whether it be via the language you use, how you use your headings to communicate a compelling story, or how you present your document, strive to be unique.

 

Finalising your business proposal

Check your numbers.

Many business proposals fail when it comes to the numbers. You can articulate how brilliant you are and how the client would be crazy to go with anyone else, but unless you are clear on your key numbers – man/woman hours, resources, timing, etc – you may not get a foot in the door. And if you somehow do get past that first checkpoint without knowing your numbers? You’ll definitely be in trouble when it comes to negotiation stage.

Have it proofread.

A professional proofread adds so much value to a business document! Not only does an error-free proposal reflect well on your organisation, but it also shows that you take pride in your work and are committed to quality. A document that is vague, littered with errors and presents more questions than answers will be discarded very quickly.

Feel confident.

If you’ve followed the steps above, you can feel confident that you’ve assembled a great proposal. And don’t feel afraid to ask for client feedback – if you are unsuccessful, it’s great to hear from an impartial source as to why you didn’t get the gig.

 

How have you approached developing a business proposal?
I’d love to hear your success stories and your challenges!
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Melinda Leyshon is a business copywriter with over 15 years experience in corporate publishing and strategy development. She has worked with some of Sydney's leading brands to deliver SEO and direct response copywriting, brand development and more. She has a huge success rate with business award applications and, throwing small business and corporate tenders into the mix, you have one of Australia's most experienced business copywriters! She also loves triathlon and has a serious penchant for licorice. And chocolate. Together.