It’s easy to get proposal documents wrong; they are usually prepared under pressure, often with incomplete information (too many client briefs are, what’s the polite word, ‘baffling’ in their intricacy, repetition, contradictions and gaps), and you are never too sure who is going to read them – only people close to the process, or others coming to it ‘cold’.

But it’s incredibly easy to spot the winners from the losers and if you work back from these tests, it will help you get the crafting right, in the first place.

  1. Does 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 produces, with just the client name changed? If the latter, that’s a waste.

2. Win by page 3

Have you ever read a novel, or a newspaper article, or a business book, and thought ’this is so good, I’m hooked’? That’s how your clients should feel by the time they get to about the third or fourth page of your proposal. Your writing should be so crisp and clear; the solutions so ‘right’, that they want to read more…and right from the start they know they are onto something special.

I’m serious – I first realised this was possible when a client showed me a proposal Tim Bell had written that won him the job, and left my firm trailing behind. His written work was great, ours was unremarkable. And then I read stuff from Government-appointed inspectors (a QC and an FCA), from Marakon and McKinsey, that all confirmed it’s possible to write documents on complex matters, and keep them fresh and interesting.

Since that humbling episode with Lord Bell, I worked hard to make up the lost ground, and I know that (in conjunction with the cover) it’s possible to set out, in about three or four pages;

  • What the brief is
  • What the challenges are
  • What your strategy is

Do this and what you are demonstrating is that:

  • You understand what they have asked for
  • You understand their problems, really well
  • You can think, and can write really clearly (‘cos people who can’t write, write on and on and Zzzzzz)
  • You have some cracking ideas on how to help them

That’s not a bad result from 3 pages of effort. Who wouldn’t be hooked by that.

3. It’s an easy read

People are looking for reasons to slim down their long-list to a short-list, and if reading your document gives people a headache, they will be less inclined to use you, compared with others.

Is it well laid out, with ample white space, headings, subheadings, precis, illustrations and so on? Or just solid blocks of text?

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.

4. It’s credible

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, too expensive, time-constrained or otherwise rubbish, it will be the final nail in your coffin.

5. It’s about them

This is the big error that people make in proposals, pitches and networking. They spend far too long talking about themselves and not enough time talking about the client.

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.

And 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.

6. It answers the brief

It’s amazing how many proposals fail this test. The clients sets out (not always terribly clearly, to be fair) a list of issues they want you to address, and you miss out one or two.

Possibly on the grounds you think they don’t deserve attention, or because you can think of more urgent issues that need addressing. Or because in the rush, everyone overlooked it (or because your document is so badly drafted, everyone gets lost reading it and so no one noticed…).

But somewhere in the bowels of every client organisation is a man with a checklist, and his job is to tick off if you have answered all of the points on the brief. And kick you out of the process if you have not.

On this point, I’m always reminded of the time-critical Government proposals I have been involved in. The brief says that documents have to be signed for at so-and-so Department reception by noon on a given date.

Inevitably, everyone delivers close to the wire, and there’s always a couple of unfortunates that sprint into reception, panting, sweating…a minute too late. And their document is refused. All that effort; all that pain – wasted.

So, if you are writing a proposal now, bear these tests in mind. As always, there’s much to do and time is slipping away, so good luck and get cracking.