Writing Proposals: An Emergency Checklist

The blank page. The deadline. The gnawing, inescapable pressure to win new business. I feel like you might have writer’s block, and you desperately need to get this proposal finished.

Fear not: Case Study Ninja is here to help.

In this article, we’re going to look at the really vital parts of getting a proposal done. Not 40 top ideas. Not “83 Things You Must Do In A Proposal! You won’t believe #19!” The bits you need to do right now, because you’re up the creek without a paddle, and it’s not going to write itself. Put the cat out, stick your phone on silent, and buckle up. In the next five minutes, we’re digging you out of a very deep hole. 

1. Start with an abstract: three sentences, maximum. What exactly are you proposing? If you can’t chop it down, you need to look at why you can’t explain it properly.

2. Keep it short: are you bidding for a five-year, multi-workstream, billion-pound piece of work? No? Then imagine you had to sit there and read it. People don’t owe you their time just because you made the effort to write the proposal: be nice to them by writing something they want to read. Note that this might not be true of a public sector bid – often, you will be penalised for not writing up to the word limit.

3. Check the formatting looks professional: you’re asking someone to give you, potentially, a great deal of money. Does your document have clip art in it? Because that’s not going to cut it. Consider using a professional document preparation service, remembering that sometimes, you have to spend it to make it. Pictures are good.

4. You are not the boss here: without adopting a Uriah Heap-style tone of subservience, you need to remember who has the money, and who is asking for that money. Demonstrate how you can help, rather than how your brilliance makes you the #1 industry disrupter.

5. Make sure you’re meeting the requirement: if someone wants coffee, don’t make them tea, and then spend 3000 words telling them why tea is better. Unless coffee would be financial suicide, in which case you might want to reconsider pitching in the first place.

6. Structure, structure, structure: remember when you used to write essays? And how you wouldn’t attempt one without spending five minutes writing a plan? Google the best proposal structures for your industry, then copy one of them. Nobody said you had to be the most original.

7. The pricing section could be the only part the client reads: if you’re really up against it, focus on making this the best bit, because the chances are that they’re not going to read the rest. A very clear indication of what it’s going to cost AND WHY will help your proposal through to the final round, because everyone who wasn’t clear about it is immediately going in the bin.

8. Think about the competition: if you’re not the biggest firm pitching, talk about how your size makes you more flexible and faster to respond. If you are the biggest, put in something about how your economies of scale make you the cheapest. You get the idea.

Ok, that’s probably enough. We haven’t got all day here, you’ve got a company to run, and you need to get this proposal done by 5pm and sent over to the client. Take a deep breath, and tell yourself that you’ll give yourself more time when you next have to do one of these. Without a deadline, nobody does any work anyway!


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