On the face of it, there are huge similarities between significant business documents – Board submissions, say – and new business proposals.

The former provides relevant information in a clear and persuasive manner, so the latter is surely the same, but with added zing?

Wrong. Thinking that way is a huge trap.

The objective in writing business documents, is that the reader can ‘get’  the paper in <90 seconds (irrespective of document length).

With proposals, the objective is to ‘win’ by page 3.

One is about clarity of information; the other is about a compelling narrative arc, and using the right document structures is key to achieving each.

Business documents should be in two parts: Summary (the most important bit) and Support (everything else). The summary is best set out in this order: 

Situation – an uncontentious statement of the background to the topic, to orientate new readers, and non subject matter experts; 

Complication – usually an opportunity or problem or an issue that has arisen;

Question – what do we do about this;

Conclusion – recommendation(s)

If you can fit that on a page, then the reader will have grasped all the essentials before reading the rest of the document.  And the point of the rest of the document is simply to elaborate on the four elements of the summary (and how you set it out depends on the situation, but generally you arrange the material in a pyramidal structure).

New business proposals are very different. They have to ‘hook’ the reader, as fast as possible. 

Here’s a test: re-read your last couple of new business proposals and ask 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 crucial point…

So try adopting the so-called ‘Conviction’ structure, instead:

First, send your credentials or background information to the client, ahead of the main body of the proposal. This shows responsiveness and has other benefits, the main one being that you don’t drown the proposal in the same credentials boilerplate as everyone else (we are experts; we understand your issues; tailored services, etc, etc).

Then send the meat of the proposal in, using the space on the front cover to say something interesting and compelling. If you can get the client interested, even before they have opened the document, you are ahead.

The document should then be set out thus:

Page 1 The brief – reiterating the brief shows the client you have understood what they are asking for (and sometimes it means clarifying what the client struggles to articulate).

Page 2 Challenges – these are what makes achieving the brief difficult (assuming you are doing more than going after utterly generic, low-value work). You should include challenges the client has not thought of, as that’s a powerful value-added.

Page 3 Strategy – this is the over-arching means by which you will deal with the challenges to deliver the brief. If you get this far and the client can see you have cracked their problem and agrees with you, then you are well on the way to getting hired. Remember, by this same stage, your competitors’ documents are still explaining how wonderful they are and how well they understand the issues.

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.

A word of warning. You have to be genuinely expert to be able to distill all that information into three pages (plus the cover), and you have to know how to write well, to create the impact you are looking for.  But it’s all achievable, and the Conviction structure has been shown to work, as has the Pyramidal structure for significant business documents.

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