Secrets of Persuasive Proposal Writing

Evaluating boring proposals is akin to biting into a cardboard cake. As a poor evaluator sinks their teeth into the unappetizing content, the effect is predictable and rather expected.

Highly readable text is paramount to getting a great score for your proposal. To be persuasive and appealing to the evaluator’s senses, your proposal text has to have compelling content and correct structure. It should use metaphors and stories to make it more engaging and vivid, and less flat and one-dimensional. It should also use appropriate language and be so simply written and accessible that even a high-school student could understand your offer.

Your compelling content, of course, comes from information gathering and brainstorming to figure out how you are going to execute the work.

Correct structure boils down to understanding that you need to first generate interest in reading your section, and only then get into the technical details that would lead you to that conclusion. Proposals shouldn’t sound like college papers – instead, aim to approach them like a journalist writing an article. An article either catches your interest in the first second or doesn’t – and your task is to catch an evaluator’s full attention at a first sentence instead of putting them to sleep or worse – turning them off entirely like a cardboard cake would.

Therefore, you should start your proposal sections with the key challenge, a risk, or a major benefit of fulfilling the requirement. Once you make the point of your section upfront, you can amplify it and build upon it, taking into consideration what the evaluators have already learned. Present the big picture first, then more and more detail, addressing all the Ws: why, what, who, how, when, where, and wow.

Metaphor and story as appropriate to proposal development are two advanced methods of making your proposals stand out. Metaphor relates something that an evaluator may not appreciate enough (but should), to something that they instinctively understand and find relatable – and create a vivid association in their mind that makes them realize the true value of what you are saying.

It enables an evaluator to create a mental picture that’s worth a thousand pictures (and as you know, a picture itself is worth a thousand words). Metaphor is by far the most powerful tool of persuasion and should not be overlooked just because it’s hard to work into such a dry, flavorless medium as government proposals.

Story can take at least a dozen forms in a proposal, with the most common one being anecdotes about your experiences on past projects. It’s not that you tell about these experiences – it’s how you tell about them that makes your proposal come alive and captures your evaluators’ attention. Every story has to have three parts—a set-up, a crisis, and a resolution—and it must illustrate the points that you are seeking to drive home. You will need to interview your technical staff to get the details of their challenges, how they overcame them, and even their feelings about them. You should sprinkle such stories throughout your proposal to make it interesting and compelling.

While you are at it, you have to make sure that you use correct language for your proposal. What sells in proposals from the language perspective are your tone and your ability to relate to the customer by speaking their language.

Your tone has to be sincere, confident, and credible. You will achieve that by speaking in the first person (“we” instead of “Acme Corporation”) – which may fly in the face of what you have learned. Or, preferably, name the people who will perform specific tasks. You should be formal enough, but not so formal that your proposal reads like a bureaucratic opus.

Sincerity comes from doing just the opposite of sleazy sales – and that is avoiding adjectives and superlatives such as “world class,” “seasoned”, “premier”, and so on. Adjectives are like perfume – you shouldn’t marinate in it. It’s OK to have one adjective every few pages, but it will be a major turn-off if you use them too much. By the way – didn’t I just create a mental picture for you with my metaphor?

Instead of relying on adjectives, you should convey passion though hard-hitting facts. It means that you have to work harder to get the specifics. Consider this:

            Weak: Mr. Smith understands the conditions in the theater and is highly experienced in the overseas operations.

            Better: Mr. Smith knows first-hand the conditions in the theater because of multiple deployments in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most recently Operation Enduring Freedom.

            Best: Mr. Smith knows first-hand conditions in the theater because of two tours to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most recently three deployments during Operation Enduring  Freedom.

Your credibility also comes from listing the facts and experiences that position you well for the job. Even though you may be submitting your reference projects in another volume, your technical proposal should have information about your experience interlaced in the text. Most likely, different evaluators will read your technical volume and your past performance volume – so the technical evaluators will not be able to appreciate the degree of your credibility if you only include information about your relevant experience in a separate volume.

Keep your language simple and straightforward. Just tell the customer what you will do for them and what the benefits of your solution are. You want to capture their attention with the hard-hitting win theme statement or key hot button upfront, then show your understanding of the problem, then articulate your solution, with major features and benefits, and then prove that you can do what you claim. You will need to quantify, qualify, and substantiate. Then you want to summarize the most important advantages, if you have room.

You also want to make sure your text is highly readable. Readability refers to the level of education an evaluator has to have to understand your proposal. The more often an evaluator has to stop to think about (or interpret) what you’re really trying to say, the worse score you are likely to get.

Go ahead and apply these persuasion secrets to your proposal sections, and they will come alive, delighting your evaluators, and helping you get contract awards.


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