How to write proposals that entice and engage

How would the following scenario make you feel?, asks Kay White, founder of Way Forward Solutions, a mentoring and communication consultancy.

You send someone something about a service you offer or a role you’re interested in and, in your first paragraph, you lose them. They take one look at the first piece or paragraph you’ve written and they’re already looking for someone else.

The 3 elements that lost you

This happens and it happens a lot.I’m also prepared to bet it’s what you do too, at times. You look at the opening lines of a proposal, a covering letter or an invitation you receive and you just think ‘no thanks’.More often than not it’ll be a combination of one or all of the following three key elements:

  1. The Energy

The person is coming across with lots of self-important ‘I, me, my’ and very little collaborative ‘we, you, your’ and tons of ‘jargon.’

  1. The Length

The lengthof the message or email is off-putting, particularly as it has no clear point or instruction at the front.

  1. The Style

The layout or style (or lack of) of the message is critical. More than off-putting is lots of CAPITALS shouting at you; too much use of boldening, sentences too long and – the worst offence – lots of typos or spelling mistakes.

These elements all count as they build an impression of you, your style, what’s important to you and what being around you or working with you would be like.

A case study: What NOT to do

Let’s take a real-world example. It’s from a VIP client of mine, a smart man I work with who is a senior executive in a City-based Lloyd’s Underwriter – and who makes the buying decisions for his company.

The company needs a new telephone system. As my client said, “All I need is an up-to-date telephone system to make and receive calls to and from the outside world. That’s it.”

Cue a proposal from a large organisation, which was recommended to my client, that boldly states a solution valued at about £16,000, to meet my client’s needs.

You’ll no doubt know exactly why my client is already looking for someone else to quote for his business.

The proposal he received was entitled “Hosted Voice Proposal” and the first, opening and ( supposedly) inviting paragraph read:

“The fact that ‘Nameless’ plc offers a national E-Lan any-to-any service-based on VPLS is a potential point of differentiation that should be worked to the full. ‘Nameless’ plc has a highly innovative proposal and in terms of a pure layer 2 ethernet message over NGN, transparent pricing and customer service, the carrier is tough to beat.”

Apart from making us both laugh out loud, this is a perfect example to learn from about the dangers of jargon and over-blown, disengaging language.

Keeping the above proposal in mind, here are my five ‘ AVOID-AT-ALL-COSTS’ tips:

  1. A title that is techy and confusing. Know who you’re writing to, calling and try to understand their role. It’s more important than yours and your knowledge in this moment. If they’re not the technical guru then why would they understand technical jargon you might be tempted to use?
  2. Abbreviations that aren’t set out in full or explained. VPLS could mean ‘visible panty line situation’ – in a woman’s world it certainly can. In this instance it meant ‘Virtual Private LAN System’ i.e. two abbreviations in the same sentence. LAN means ‘local area network’. Who knew? I didn’t, nor did my client.
  3. No personality. Who actually speaks like that? Writing more like you speak is the quickest way to engage the reader. More formal layout is needed at times but the more of your personality and energy you can weave in (without being overbearing or breathless), the more engaging you’ll be.
  4. Jargon. We want to know what we’re going to get, what it’ll do for us, as in what the value is. We don’t need to know how clever you are and how many letters there are after your name or all the industry-specific statistics.
  5. Long statements with no question. Using over-blown language and then not even inviting the reader to think about something is such a waste of the moment. Don’t you enjoy being invited to consider something? When someone says “think about this for a second” and then relates it to your issue or interest, it’s more engaging - you’re involved.

Albert Einstein famously said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. ‘KISS’ is an easy way to remember this: ‘Keep It Simple & Straightforward.’

Editor’s Note: Further Reading -

How to write emails that persuade and convince

Freelancers’ Questions: How do I pitch?

How to write emails and influence people


14th November 2012

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