Canadian Consulting Engineer

Crafting a Proposal

August 1, 2000
By Suzanne Marra

Crafting a powerful proposal is much like designing a building -- you need to structure and organize first, then use your expertise to fill in the details.Crafting a powerful, persuasive proposal is a...

Crafting a powerful proposal is much like designing a building — you need to structure and organize first, then use your expertise to fill in the details.

Crafting a powerful, persuasive proposal is a bit like designing a new building: without a solid foundation, the structure will collapse, and if the details aren’t looked after, the whole thing will fail to succeed. Like a beautifully drawn design for an imposing modern tower, a winning proposal will impress the client with its economy of style and clear view of the solution.

A persuasive proposal requires the combined input of the architect and the structural, mechanical, electrical and other consulting engineers. First you prepare the architectural blueprint — the sales strategy — for the document. Next, you ensure that the parts of the proposal function both independently and interdependently within a solid framework. Finally, you craft clear sentences and cohesive paragraphs which constitute the machinery of a readable document.

Here are some tips to help you build persuasive, well-organized and fluid proposals that will win you business.

Tip #1: show you understand the client’s needs

Proposal writers are sometimes so anxious to outline “the perfect solution” that they forget to analyze the client’s needs and show them that they understand those needs. You can win bids by expressing what your clients need to hear rather than by impressing them with complicated logic and mountains of disparate facts.

According to Jeff Plant, P.Eng., you can sign more contracts if you know and listen to your clients, as well as respect their time. He cited several instances where the winning firm really understood the project, listened to the client’s challenges and responded to them without arrogance.

He recalls one instance when an experienced proposal writer condensed a 200-page detailed proposal into five focused pages and won a $3 million assignment. The problem with the detailed proposal was that it focused on what the firm had done and could do, and not on what the client needed.

In another situation, three top traffic engineering firms had to present their proposals to a prospective client. The most low-key, confident team won the contract even though they had the highest bid, the shortest proposal, and the smallest team.

Tip #2: state your solution

Once you have a clear picture of your client’s situation, you can craft your response. Proposal writers are sometimes so entranced with the glamorous technology involved in their solution that they forget to state simply what that solution will be. If it is a relatively simple approach, a few sentences will do; if more complex, one or two paragraphs will suffice.

Tip #3: features tell;

benefits sell

A mediocre proposal lists the features of the solution; a winning proposal shows how each feature will benefit the client. Imagine for a moment that part of your solution is an electrodeless fluorescent lamp. Some proposal writers may be eager to list all the features of this lamp and give a “classic features dump.” However, the advantages of the equipment, not a laundry list of features, will sell the client on the solution.

By writing a “Benefit Label Statement” you can sell the solution more convincingly. For example, one feature of the electrodeless lamp is that the life of its cathodes is rated at 100,000 hours. Although the value to the client seems to be obvious, you still must emphasize the “so what” of this feature and answer the client’s question, “What’s in it for me?” Here is one way to highlight the benefit of this revolutionary lamp:

Because the electrodeless lamp is rated at 100,000 hours, it will increase the reliability of your lighting system and save you money due to the reduced high cost of relamping

For every feature of your solution, you can ask yourself whether it will help the client do one or more of the following benefits:

increase revenues or profits;

save effort, energy or dollars;

enhance company prestige;

improve service to others;

prepare for the future;

advance knowledge.

Tip #4: emphasize strengths; mitigate weaknesses

You can stress your firm’s strengths by tying them to your client’s buying objectives. Experience has taught you that your client will choose the most cost-effective solution from the firm with the stellar track record. Since price competition is a reality of the market, perhaps you can exploit the fact that your solution is cheaper than the competition’s. As well, you can develop your credibility strategy when you show that you have already implemented this approach successfully in similar situations.

But what if your solution is the most expensive? In this case, you can mitigate a potential weakness (highest price) by compensating for it in some way. Maybe your solution is $50,000 more than the competitor’s, but if you show the client that your solution will save them $100 million in construction fees, then your costs are justifiable.

You also need to analyze your competition and demonstrate why your solution is superior to the one that your competitors are likely to offer, without denigrating them outright.

Tip #5: weave sales themes throughout the proposal

When designing its new corporate headquarters in Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Breton, Banville, and Associates (BBA) and Concept R were challenged to engineer building controls so that fire, security, lighting and HVAC would all work together smoothly through a single-user interface (CCE, August/September 1999).

Like a single-user interface, the sales theme should control or “activate” each of the proposal sections. As a proposal writer, your biggest challenge is to make sure all the parts of your proposal resonate with your chosen selling theme. Possible sales themes include easier operability, reduced construction time and increased profits.

You can weave the sales themes throughout the proposal, concentrating on the executive summary, the overviews, the project personnel, and even in the graphics through the notes and captions. For example, “Company X’s growth over the last two years as a result of implementing this new system,” would be a useful caption to interpret a picture or graph for the reader.

Tip #6: use a collaborative, helpful tone

A collaborative, helpful tone strengthens the proposal as a selling document. It suggests to the client that the bidding organization would be a trusted and valuable business partner.

You can achieve a collaborative tone by using the personal pronouns, “we,” “I,” and “you.” Many proposal writers are averse to using these pronouns because they are convinced that their use is ungrammatical and unprofessional.

On the contrary, no grammatical rule exists that prohibits the use of “we,” “I,” or “you” in written proposals. Equally mystifying is the idea that it is unprofessional to use the language that we use in natural speech in proposals.

Tip #7: write in the active voice

When you write predominantly in the active voice — “Actor + Action” or “Subject + Verb” — you can make your proposals easy to read, and also highlight your accountability.

Since the passive voice requires more words than the active, a document written primarily in the active voice will be more clear, direct, concise, and readable than its passive counterpart. For example, Our team will build the bridge, which contains the active verb build, has more impact than the passive version, the bridge will be built (by our team).

In addition, you have a better chance of demonstrating accountability by writing active sentences. In the active construction we recommend, for example, the “actor” or “subject” we clearly makes the recommendation. On the contrary, the passive it is recommended obscures or hides who is the actor or subject.

Tip #8: use reader-friendly headings to convey benefits

Reader-friendly headings can help clients find and focus on the benefits of your solution. Proposals are generally loaded with generic or static headings like “Industry Experience.” The reader-friendly
alternative, “We Know Your Industry” is more active and descriptive than the generic version. Above are descriptive alternatives to three common generic headings.

Tip #9: use point form sparingly

You can keep your proposals persuasive and readable by following these point form guidelines:

introduce a list with a label sentence (as I have just done);

use fewer than six bullets at a time; and

list steps only, or descriptions only.

Contrary to popular opinion, excessive point form is not easy to read because it consists of disconnected statements. As well, it is difficult to interpret because the reader cannot distinguish the most from the least important points. Point form is best used for highlighting or listing sequential steps, not for persuading the reader.

Tip #10: keep paragraphs to a reasonable length

A solid proposal is a large package filled with little packages, also known as paragraphs. Each paragraph is “labelled” with a topic statement or a benefit statement. A well-constructed paragraph typically runs no more than seven or eight lines.

Successful proposal writers elaborate on only one main idea or benefit in each paragraph. The topic or benefit statement captures the client’s attention and the rest of the paragraph proceeds to show why the client should remain interested. By writing paragraphs of reasonable length, you can also increase the white space of the document, which makes the reader’s job easier.

Tip Plus 1: avoid the canned proposal syndrome

It is common knowledge that poor ventilation creates indoor air quality problems and sick building syndrome. Similarly, a design that uses recycled elements and strategies, and circulates tired and hackneyed phrases may lead to the “canned proposal syndrome.”

“Canned proposal syndrome,” also known as recycling boilerplate passages, can sabotage your client’s perspective of the solution. Boilerplate passages are those pieces of text and components that are frequently used in a firm’s proposals; for example, organizational charts, resums of key technical personnel, and company or product profiles.

Apart from the obvious dangers of forgetting to delete a reference to a previous client, you will miss the opportunity to speak directly to your prospective client. By recrafting “boilerplate” to address your client’s specific needs and to speak in the language of their own industry, your proposal will seem fresh and much more appealing, and it will be your solution that stands out in your client’s mind.

Suzanne Marra is a communications consultant with IWCC Training in Communications in Toronto, e-mail smarra@


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