9 Practical Ways to Improve your Business Proposals
Business proposals can be difficult documents to produce. It’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s right and wrong and what the customer would prefer to see versus what you need to propose. Because every customer is different, both from a corporate perspective and from an individual personal point of view, it’s very difficult to definitively say what a successful proposal should look like. Each customer will have their own corporate and individual preferences in the way they want to see proposals offered and in what content they believe they should contain.
It is possible, however, to identify some generic guidelines that can apply to all proposal documents that will increase the chances of yours being a success. In general, these will help you to get your message across more effectively and avoid you making basic errors in the documentation that can undermine your credibility and what you’re trying to achieve.
1) Spelling, grammar and punctuation.
This is a basic precaution, but one that is missed all too often in the rush to make a delivery to a customer. Few things will undermine a proposal faster than a document riddled with basic spelling, grammar or punctuation errors. The irritation factor alone for the reader will mean that your document is unlikely to be taken seriously and at worst, it may cast doubt on the seriousness with which you approached the subject and the amount of effort you put into your solution.
Some will say that there are other things to worry about in a proposal, like making sure you address the customer’s requirement and demonstrating that you understand their business. These are rightly important issues, but if you allow a basic aspect of document production to be missed, you risk undermining all of the good work you’ve done in getting your message across. Check, check and check again. Never submit a proposal document that has not been thoroughly proofread and edited, preferably by someone other than the author. Never rely fully on software spelling and grammar checkers as these are not foolproof tools.
2) Make full use of illustrations and captions.
You’ve heard before that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. This is true in proposal documents as much as in other aspects of life. Where you have a solution or issue that can benefit from using an illustration or a diagram, use it one. Readers are generally drawn to pictures and graphics and you can use this to your advantage. Make sure that the graphic is useful and not a gratuitous picture of something only semi-relevant.
Since the reader will be drawn to the graphic, it’s a good idea to maximize the effect of the graphic through the use of captions. These are short lines of text located with the picture that explain the picture or get across a key idea or message that the picture relates to. These are excellent tools to get key ideas into the reader’s mind quickly.
3) Highlight your key messages.
In a similar tactic to the use of illustration captions, it can be beneficial to draw out key phrases or sentences to catch the reader’s eye. Often these will not relate to a picture, so try using pull quotes. A pull quote is typographical design or style element often used in journalism and graphic design that places a piece of text on a page in such a manner as to catch the eye or draw attention to it. Look up pull quotes on the internet to see examples of how it’s used and its effect.
The effective use of pull quotes with an emphasis on graphic design can make your document look and feel more professional, especially if they are integrated into the document design and style.
4) Make your document look and feel professional.
As with anything in life, first impressions in business proposals are vital. Having a document that looks and feels professional will help you give the best possible first impression. Making your document look good, won’t help if the content isn’t up to scratch though, so don’t forget that while it has to look good, it also has to deliver the goods in terms of what you’re proposing. While you want to avoid having your proposal look like a triumph of style over substance, the impact of a well presented and well-designed document should not be understated. It could be the difference between winning and losing if you’re document gives the impression that you tried just that little bit harder or that you’re just that little bit more professional. Remember you’re almost always dealing with a situation where your proposal will be read and assessed by people. People like to look at documents that are pleasing and well structured.
5) Make the most of automatic cross-referencing.
Much like the spelling, grammar and punctuation advice, this refers to the elimination of basic errors in your document that can undermine your hard work. Modern word processing applications have the ability to automatically link and cross reference different items within themselves, like headings, figures and tables. Where you want to make reference to another paragraph or section, use the ability to automatically insert a cross reference to do this. The reason this is a much better approach will become clear if you have to insert or delete a paragraph heading. Using an automatic method of inserting the paragraph or section number will allow the document to automatically update if those numbers or names change. Entering the reference by hand means you will have to proofread the whole document to find every cross reference whenever you make any changes that affect them. This may seem pedantic, but you don’t want to reference a section wrongly and undermine your work. When you send the reader to a paragraph or page, they should find what they’re looking for.
6) Be careful with jargon and terminology.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the use of jargon should be avoided at all costs but in business, jargon can sometimes be what makes the subject comprehensible for those that are steeped in a particular subject or industry. Use of jargon or technical terminology can be entirely appropriate provided you can demonstrate that you know what it means and what it means for your customer. Be sure to use only terminology that the customer will readily identify with. To be on the safe side, where you have used jargon or specific terminology, make sure you include a glossary or definitions page. The purpose of this is not so much to educate your customer in the meanings but more to demonstrate that you have a shared understanding of the meaning.
7) Include an abbreviations page.
Some industries seem to thrive on the use of abbreviations. Specialists in some subjects will understand whatever abbreviations you can throw at them, but remember that your proposal may be read by others, who may not have as full an understanding of the subject as you do. Make sure that you include a page listing all of the abbreviations used and their expanded meanings.
The most reliable way to do this is to print the document out when you’re ready to proofread it and have a highlighter pen ready. As you proofread, highlight every abbreviation you encounter. This will allow you to go back through the document and add all of the abbreviations used into a single list, safe in the knowledge that you haven’t missed any.
8) Use a style guide.
Consistency is a quality that most readers will not notice when it has been achieved. Get it wrong though, and every reader will notice. By far the best way to ensure consistency of writing style, terminology, branding and practically every aspect of your documentation, is to write in accordance with a style guide. A style guide is simply a document that lays out the rules for producing your proposals and gives authors the guidance they need to ensure that every document and section within a document is consistent. It’s particularly effective when more than one person is contributing to the proposal, allowing a cohesive and consistent document to be written from many different sources.
9) Have a checklist prepared.
In the rush to meet deadlines and get your message across, it’s very easy to miss the basic things that help make a successful document and a successful proposal in general. As you start to form an idea of what you want to propose in terms of your key messages and the content of your proposal document, prepare a checklist that you can use when you think the document is complete. Make sure your checklist covers the business aspects of your proposal in terms of the key messages and solutions you are actually proposing but also make sure it covers the basic document related things like proofreading, formatting, abbreviations, definitions and spelling checks. Having a checklist for these basic items will allow you to speed up the time it takes to get the document completed and ready for submission. You can also be sure that they have been checked and your document is really ready to go.