Proposal Checklist - what makes a proposal good?
With entries for the annual nFold APMP proposal award due at the end of August, my mind turns to the definition of a good proposal. Tom Sant defines a good proposal as one that wins. But wait, there’s more…
I enjoy judging the award each year and discussing the relative merits of each proposal with my fellow judges. We have revised the decision criteria to include the overall impression, executive summary, layout & graphics, and language & structure. Within each category, we’re looking for something special.
We put ourselves in the shoes of your customer when we read your proposal. If your proposal makes us want to say YES, then it’s a good proposal. As a sales document, a good proposal is one that wins the deal or advances the sales process to the next stage. It is NOT just a quote, nor is it simply a bill of materials, nor is it a product brochure, and it certainly is not all about us as the vendor. You make clients want to say YES to the extent that you convince them you can deliver what they want at a reasonable price. You must also demonstrate unique reasons to choose you that matter to the client.
Your executive summary should make a strong business case. It must stand alone and make your value proposition clear. It should be long enough to cover the basics, but short enough to remain interesting. Include high level pricing and payback unless prohibited. Focus on three or four key win themes that matter to the client and highlight unique aspects of your bid. Use pictures that help you to tell your story. Keep it short and simple.
Layout & Graphics
As a client skim-reads your proposal, it should be pleasing on the eye. The key points should jump off the page. Use white space and pictures to enhance the layout. Get a graphic designer to create a template for you or to do the layout of your proposal if the bid budget allows. Explain your outline with reference to the client’s request so that your logic is clear. Give more space to topics that are important to the client rather than providing heaps of information and making the client work out what’s important.
Language & Tone
Use a persuasive structure and direct tone in your proposal. Make it feel like a sales conversation. Always run a spelling and grammar check and show readability statistics. You should use less than 10% passive voice, aim for sentences of 15-18 words on average, and write your executive summary at a grade level of 8-10 and your technical proposal at a grade level of 10-12. This probably means you’re not using too much fluff, guff, geek or weasel – which is a good thing for a proposal. Keep your language clear and simple.
Ten Things to Check
Here are a few simple things I check when I want to transform a proposal from good to great:
1. Comply - Read the RFP or client request and make sure the proposal complies.
2. Greet - Include a cover letter (with contact details) if the proposal is more than 20 pages. Get the most senior person who has met the client to sign it.
3. Persuade - Add client focus and differentiation to the executive summary if missing and make the value proposition clear.
4. Focus - Write section summaries that help the client to focus on key points.
5. Fix - Check spelling and readability statistics. Shorten sentences, improve passive voice, and reduce grade level if needed. Eliminate errors that kill credibility.
6. Skim - Add dynamic headings if missing, to make the proposal easier to skim.
7. Layout - Add pictures and action captions or call-outs to break up the text, support the story and make the proposal easier to understand. Fix pictures that are too complex or do not fit the style of the proposal.
8. Next – Always ask for the business and make it clear you are ready for the next step of the sales / decision process. Add a conclusion before the appendices.
9. Read – I read the proposal from start to end after making changes to make sure that there are no inconsistent details. Make it a pleasure to read.
10. Package – improve the title page with a dynamic heading to match your key win theme and get creative about packaging the proposal to stand out from the crowd.
Why not check these the next time you read or write a proposal and see what happens? I’d love to know if it works for you!