As a practicing capture and proposal consultant, I often get to review past proposals that companies keep on file. I get to see all kinds of “masterpieces” that should have never made it out the door. Usually, it is not only the content, but also the language that makes me cringe. Here is a typical example of such “proposalese:”
“Our outstanding team of engineers with reputation for world-class service can provide innovative and flexible solutions to ensure that the government receives unparalleled comprehensive maintenance support at all times and can utilize the facility on a 24×7 basis.”
I can point out multiple problems with this sentence, but I am going to pick the biggest offender of all the excessive use of adjectives. For those of you who don’t remember grammar well, adjectives are words that answer such questions as What kind? How much? How many? Which one? and Whose?
Adjective-holics believe that real writers have a special talent to draw on their rich vocabularies to pick the perfect words to describe something well. They tend to say, “I can’t understand it, but it sounds so good!” So, they pack those adjectives into a proposal like sardines. In the sentence above, the writer managed to stuff more than a half-dozen adjectives! I am sure he or she believed it sounded good…
The truth is, certain superlatives that appear in many proposals and marketing materials, such as “world-class” or “outstanding”, instantly send a negative message to the evaluator. So do multiple adjectives in the same sentence or paragraph. The unintended message is something like “I revel in unsubstantiated puffery to impress you I am full of hot air.”
Adjectives are useful only when the noun or verb alone cannot convey the specific meaning that the adjective adds. When you describe an “uninterrupted flow,” for example, the world “flow” alone is not enough to convey the meaning. Better yet, whenever you can, quantify your nouns rather than qualifying them instead of describing What kind? and Which?, state How much? and How many? Otherwise, ruthlessly cut the adjectives and your proposal is sure to benefit.
The most powerful proposal text comes from sticking to nouns and verbs. Finding good nouns may be easier you usually know what you deliver. It is the verbs where everyone struggles. I have seen proposals with only four verbs other than the various forms of the verb “to be”: provide, ensure, utilize (the word I personally despise), and bring.
Here is a list of 80 power verbs that you can use in the proposal to get your writing to pack more punch:
Remember, flowery proposal language usually tries to cover up for lack of substance. It is hard to read, and it tends to mask the real gems of your approach and solution if they are there. Sharpen your pencils and get rid of all the fluff to make your offer shine.
If you have suffered from bad proposal language, please, share your experiences! It would be great to share with everyone the examples of bad writing you encountered, while protecting the guilty and keeping it anonymous, of course.