Producing proposals

In all your communications with the buyer, including proposals, talk about their benefits rather than features; and outcomes not inputs. Will a buyer care whether, for example, how your product automatically archives? Whereas they’ll be very interested to know how much that reduces their costs. The more emphasis there is on ‘why’ rather than ‘how’ the better.

You should break down the production process into five distinct phases where the shortest two, plan and review, are the most important. These phases (in yellow on the diagram) are the points where experienced executives can add the most value.  You’ll find that this breakdown works equally well for a one person part time job or a large team working full time for many months.



The more time you have the easier it is to get the right people lined up for each phase so start this phase when you realise that something interesting is coming along. It helps if you set aside a regular weekly slot for planning and review meetings so that the experienced executives you’ll need will all have the same time available.

When the questions, probably included in a request for proposal, arrive read them carefully to decide who will answer each question and what marking you can reasonably aspire to. This should give the planning meeting the information they need to judge whether it’s a good use of resources, and to allocate a reasonable budget. Have the team ready but don’t start work until you have decided who will do what and have the themes agreed (usually at the planning meeting).

It’s going to be very tempting to set everyone off as quickly as possible, particularly where the timescale is short. In practice any time saved with a fast start will be lost in trying to pull the disconnected pieces together against an even tighter timescale later. 


Get experienced executives who understand the customer together to agree on your strategy to succeed. This goes wider than producing the proposal and might include using their relationships to test what is really being looked for or whether something you’d like to include in your propose is acceptable.

Start the meeting by reviewing why you have decided to pursue this opportunity confirming that this is still worth pursuing. Then move on to decide on the themes that will give your proposal a solid backbone on which the detail answers can sit.

To enable you to tell a convincing story develop a list of themes that encapsulate what the buyer will be looking for and how they will judge your proposals.  Some examples of themes you might come up with are:

·         You understand them and what they are looking for (with specifics)

·         Competitive pricing

·         Achievement of a policy outcome

·         Reliable delivery

·         Experienced staff

And make sure everyone who contributes to the proposal uses the themes to shape what they say.  For example, if competitive pricing and reliable delivery are key themes, emphasise those aspects in each reference used.

Finally agree on the budget and priority and set the date for a review, where you will make sure that the plan has been faithfully executed, leaving time for the proposal to be polished.


During this phase make sure the focus is on the story, the themes and the rough shape of the content. It’s very tempting to polish the wording too early, re-using an old quote it’s like “putting lipstick on a pig”, so leave the make-up until the polish phase when you’ve built a consistent and convincing story.

Look for somewhere where you can tie together the answers to tell a story, this makes it much easier to be consistent and convincing.  There may be a question asking for a solution overview, for example, and if there isn’t anywhere else put it into a covering letter.  It’s best to write this first so that individual answers fit together and build a consistent picture. Even if you can’t find a way to send it to the customer it will result in a better proposal.

As sections are drafted ask for ideas for diagrams or pictures, they make a proposal more attractive and understandable. Pictures can also be very useful where there are tight word count limits.

Although it sounds terribly obvious answer the questions, as with exams at school, you won’t get any marks for answers that tell the customer what they don’t want to know.  Equally obvious; use the buyers words, it makes it so much easier for people who know less about what you are offering than you do, to see that your proposal answers their question.   Using the buyer’s language is particularly important where the proposal will be marked by people who are not specialists in the subject area.

Avoid cross referencing. It’s irritating to have to find the reference when marking a question.  Where proposals have been split to enable specialists to mark answers it may even mean the specialist needing to get to another part of the proposal.  If you do need to cross reference, for example to keep the word count down, bring out the key points of the cross reference so that each answer is independently readable.

Whilst it dramatically reduces costs if you reuse material it’s important to avoid it appearing as if you can’t be bothered to give the buyer a reply that looks as if it was written for them.  The most cost effective approach is to build up a library that includes far more than any individual buyer will want and draw from it, personalising it to for the buyer and reinforcing their themes. 

References (often referred to as case studies) deserve special attention, investing in a well documented review when every project is completed will both improve performance in future projects and provide the raw material for case studies.  Good references, written to emphasise the themes the customer cares about, will do more to win business than anything else.  I recommend basing the bonusfor a successful piece of work on the value of the project completion review documentation in drafting references.

Make sure that clients will substantiate references; you don’t want to hear later “you wouldn’t have quoted that reference if you’d known what they’d say about you”. Be careful in choosing who should be contacted and make sure that they don’t have unresolved issues.


Find someone who has had no involvement in writing it and who will read it like the buyer. Ask them to score the proposal against the criteria you expect the buyer to use and give feedback on the areas they feel could be improved.  This will improve this proposal and help identify systemic faults in proposal production. 

It is particularly valuable if the experienced executives who were involved in constructing the plan are available to review the draft proposal to make sure it achieves what they envisaged. This can best be done in a meeting, or teleconference, where a precondition for attendance is that one has read the draft proposal and is ready to discuss how the buyer will react to it.

Reviews work best with an independent facilitator to manage the process and make sure that each piece of the proposal makes its contribution to telling a convincing story. Invite the lead author, emphasising that they must be prepared to listen to what is being suggested without feeling defensive.  If contributors make minor drafting or punctuation suggestions remind them that this isn’t the forum for detail and instead they should send an email to the author.


You may find that using a specialist writer for this phase is both cost effective and results in a higher quality proposal. You need to appeal to all possible readers and it’s an important skill to get the balance right.

First impressions count so get a decent front cover, I like to use some photographs that mean something to the customer merged into a collage to show it’s been produced specially for them.

It’s maybe exaggerating to say a picture is better than a thousand words, but they  both save on word count (which may well be limited) and brighten up the story. Your re-use library should have those that illustrate what you do, and any you produce should be considered as potential additions.

Microsoft Word has a feature enabling the editing history of documents to be seen by anyone you send it to. And some proposals have contained some really stupid things, for example, “do you think that they will believe this” have been left for buyers to read. I suggest you use the Microsoft utility for removing editing comments or if the buyer accepts PDF documents use them instead.

Lastly, deliver in good time in precisely the way the buyer states. It’s a shame to be excluded for a trivial omission when you are winding down.