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Tips on Proposals That Win

My current monthly e-newsletter, Better Writing at Work, offers 21 tips for writing winning business proposals. Here are the first three, plus a bonus suggestion from a reader. If you like what you read, subscribe here. And if you already subscribe, thank you–see the bonus tip below.

Tip 1: Obey their rules. If you are responding to an RFP (request for proposals) that has specific steps to follow, follow them exactly. Their purchasing or procurement department has probably spent a lot of time preparing the RFP. Ignoring its requirements is an almost certain way to disqualify your proposal. After all, if you won’t comply with their request now, what will you do when they hire you?

Tip 2: Focus on this company’s needs. In any proposal it’s tempting to pull out your "standard proposal" and make minor changes for this new prospective client. But doing so leads to proposals that sound canned and miss the mark. Such proposals do not excite the prospect because they don’t focus on their needs (also known as their pain). Yes, refer to old successful proposals for ideas and some content, but review that content through the eyes of the new client.

Tip 3: Use the prospect’s language. If the potential customer wants an "associate onboarding process," call your program that. Do not call it an employee orientation program. Using the company’s language communicates that you have been listening to them, that you understand them, and that you and your process will fit in.

Bonus tip from Lucy at a U.S. government agency:
As someone who deals with grant proposals, I find that one of the biggest mistakes is not explaining basic information about your institution in ways that are clear to people in other situations. Not every state has the same laws, not every university runs the same way, and the proposals are reviewed by reviewers from institutions in other settings. People in institutions get so used to how they do things; they forget that others don’t do things that way.

Subscribe to the free newsletter here. See my post "Proposals–Where to Focus" here.

Happy proposing.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Tips on Proposals That Win”

  • I couldn’t agree more.

    Whenever I’m working on this sort of document I alway remember what I was told at school when sitting exams: the most important thing is to answer the question.

    The last point is also crucial – and not just to proposal writing. I regularly tell my students what a journalist once told me: write for grandmothers and Martians. In other words, assume your audience knows absolutely nothing about the topic. Never assume anyone is as informed as you are – I think that goes for all writing.

  • I want to thank you Lynn for all your tips on writing. Your writing is so crisp and clear. It truly inspires me to be a better writer. I hope to see you at Feb 1 business writing workshop.

  • Writing proper greetings, sentiments, business proposals is essential in business and in every day life.
    Thank you for your wonderful samples and clear explanations.
    English is my second language, and this site has truly been helping me.
    Martian Grandma

  • Not only are your tips effective, but tip 3 is very unique.

    By using the prospect’s language, not only are you demonstrating that you are listening, you are sending the message, “I am like you.” People like doing business with people who are like them. It is a key element of rapport and more powerful than people might suspect.

    BTW, the brevity of the post is appreciated (and skillful). Thanks for the good work.

Comments are closed.