Think your firm is good at new business proposals? 

Here’s a test: take an old proposal, from just long enough ago for it to be out of your memory, and read it from start to finish, whilst asking yourself the question: at what point in the document would the client – all else being equal – say “Wow! That’s it! I’m hooked! These people deserve our business.”

Chances are you will get all the way through, without ever reaching that point.  But if you write a document using the techniques I go through in this paper, you will find you have the client hooked by about page three.

What Goes Wrong

It’s easy to get proposal documents wrong. They are frequently prepared under pressure, often to inadequate briefs and with incomplete information, by people who do not understand professional services selling (and thus focus on the wrong things). 

And for many staffers, writing proposals is just a repetitive, administrative chore, rather than the crafting of something so important, engaging, powerful and compelling that it is going to persuade a client to spend a fortune with you.

The number one point of failure is generally to spend too much time writing about your business and its credentials (which will probably read like every other firm’s credentials), rather than concentrating on the client.

Next, it’s often the case that the document is so badly organised that it is hard to work out what you would actually do, if appointed.

Usually, poor proposal documents are littered with the word “strategy” or “strategic”, in a way that clearly demonstrates the author has no idea what strategy actually is (e.g. “our strategy is to address high-level, strategic audiences with strategic messaging, delivered strategically”. Nonsense, but this sort of thing is all too common). 

Next on the list of what to get wrong comes “creativity”. Some firms, in an attempt to demonstrate their “creativity”, stuff their documents with the incontinent outpouring of their last brainstorming session. They think out-of-the-box-blue-sky-thinking will persuade. But if the thoughts are impractical, irrelevant, too expensive, time-constrained or otherwise rubbish, it will be the final nail in your coffin.

And the schoolboy error: too often, proposals don’t address the client brief.

Added to which, weak proposal documents are usually enormously boring to read, and that only makes you stand out, the wrong way.

But here’s the thing: bad proposal documents don’t just evidence poor use of language; poor organisation, poor understanding of persuasive skills, and so on. They evidence poor thinking. That’s why bad ones are so deadly and good ones so powerful – who wants to hire a firm that’s decidedly low wattage, when they could hire a laser instead.

How To Get It Right

So this is how you create killer proposal documents, that will shine out from the rest, and put you in poll position to win (I’m making the assumption here that before you put pen to paper, you will have done research; brainstorming and so on…).

Step one. Separate your credentials from the rest of the document, and send them in beforehand. 

Look, we know you think your firm is great and we know your people’s cv’s are marvellous (that’s why you are on the shortlist in the first place), but separate your credentials from the rest of the document and send that in, ahead of the main piece. That’s because:

  1. its the least interesting element in the whole thing (they know your credentials already; they will have seen your website); 
  2. it shows you are quick off the mark, as most firms struggle to get proposals in on time; 
  3. it gives you another reason to get in touch, and that may give you an inkling into the client’s thinking (e.g. they may ask why no-one on the proposed team has, say, data analysis skills);
  4. it means the main document contains only relevant, interesting material.

And, by the way, in your staff cv’s, only include stuff that’s actually relevant to the client’s brief. Including reams of irrelevant achievements doesn’t make you look like a seasoned professional, it makes you look desperate.

Next, make the front cover work.

The front cover is precious real estate. Does yours stand out from the rest? Does yours catch the attention of the reader, or does it look like every other front cover your firm (and every other firm) produces, with just the client name changed? If the latter, that’s a waste.

Instead, try putting one or two eye-catching statements there. Here’s a real example from a successful privatisation pitch (we were not allowed to use two-part documents, so this one had to break my first rule, and include credentials, which we placed in an appendix):

  • We have extensive privatisation experience
  • We know the role of PR in this privatisation is different
  • We have been entrusted with over £6 billion in deals to date
  • We have agreed arrangements with a high-quality, local PR firm
  • We regard working with you to be a significant and prestigious appointment

And the cover was in the client’s colour-ways and typeface, to look like it’s their document, not ours. That’s far more interesting than the usual, bland and boring front cover, and got us off to a flying start.

Use the ‘Conviction’ structure.

This structure elicits an emotional response, that goes beyond just ticking the ‘logic’ boxes – you have the client convinced – and that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s also what enables you to write a document that has you winning by about page three.

Page 1: The brief– you start by reiterating the brief. This shows the client you have understood what they are asking for, and sometimes it means helping the client, by clarifying what they struggle to articulate.

Page 2: Challenges – ie this is what is going to make achieving the brief difficult (assuming you are doing more than going after utterly generic, low-value work). 

Now a lot of people skimp on this section, because they want to convey the impression that because their firm is so skilled, nothing is ever a problem for them, and so there are no challenges worth mentioning. This is from the ‘no worries’, and ‘whatever the question, the answer is yes’ school of thought and is a terrible mistake.  

The truth is, the scale of the challenge is a measure of the ability of the firm concerned. So, which of these two statements do you think looks the more impressive:

  • When I was a student, I successfully drove an old Land Rover across the Sahara, in a week.
  • When I was a student, I drove an old Land Rover across the Sahara, through sand storms; dunes over 200’ high; across ground so rough I had three punctures a day, and in sand so soft I had to dig the vehicle out; despite the engine seizing; in 60 degree heat during the day and minus 10 at night. And I did that in only a week.

The challenges serve to make the brief a tougher ask, so don’t skimp on them. And you can add value at this very early stage, if you include challenges the client has not thought of. 

But what this section also does is it raises the emotional tension, which the next section releases, and this is what provides the important, emotional component to the document.

Page 3: Strategy – this is the most over-used (and thus discredited) word in proposals.

Strategy, in this context, is the over-arching means by which you will deal with the challenges, in order to deliver the brief. 

It is usually expressed in one or a few sentences, that start with:

“Our strategy is…”

Some examples:

  • Adopting a seeing is believing approach
  • To use geofenced messaging to capture itinerant influencers
  • To concentrate on story X to deflect from story Y
  • Engage with neutrals and avoid contact with entrenched views
  • To use television-led exclusives
  • Direct messaging via social media and meetings; avoiding mainstream media

When a client has read this far, they can see you understand their brief; have exposed the challenges facing them (including challenges they had not thought of themselves); have a strategy that cracks their problem – and if they agree with you – then you have a head start on getting hired. 

That’s not a bad result from 3 pages of effort. Who wouldn’t be hooked by that? Remember, by about page 3, your competitors’ documents are still explaining how wonderful they are and how well they understand the issues…

The Remainder Of The Document

Remaining pages cover Detailed work – and everything else. And of course this has to be compelling and the fees have to offer good value, but all the detail here supports those first three pages.

Finally, it’s important to make the document an easy read, and one that imparts a sense of pace.

Too many proposals contain numerous phases of implementation, which stretch out into the future, giving the client the impression they will be paying fees for ages, with any return some way into the future. 

It also looks pedestrian, not thorough, and that’s never good. So make sure that the document exudes a sense of urgency (without sounding hysterical) and promises concrete results, promptly.

Do you say what you mean, or is your copy convoluted, and the reader has to wrestle your line of thought out of your writing?

Is your document repetitive? Do you say the same thing over and over? Do you reiterate the same point? Do you say the same things in different ways, just to make sure the reader has got the point? Get’s tedious, doesn’t it. More importantly, repetition doesn’t strengthen your point, it erodes it.

Importance Of Design

Remember, too, that clients are looking for reasons to slim down their long-list to a short-list, and if reading your document gives people a headache or bores them, you could be destined for the reject list.

So, is your document easy to read; easy on the eye: well laid out, with ample white space, headings, subheadings, precis, illustrations and so on? Or just solid blocks of text?


These then are pointers that will help you write killer proposals. 

Of course, it helps if your people know how to write (in particular, how to write ‘short’); know how to use diagrams and graphics to best effect. Know how to edit and proof read; know how to organise their thinking so the document can be written, swiftly.

As always, there’s much to do and time is short, so good luck and get cracking.