The Ultimate Guide to Proposal Building

Chapter 6: Writing techniques

1. Proposal Organization
1.1. Benefits of a well-organized proposal:

  • Easy for readers to understand and evaluate.
  • Higher evaluation scores
  • Improved customer confidence in your ability to deliver
  • Proposals that are easier to write

1.2. Attributes of a well-organized proposal:

  • They provide a roadmap to how the proposal is organized
  • They make key points easy for evaluators to identify and understand
  • They are written from the customer’s point of view, evidenced in the organization scheme
  • They tell customers what is important to them
  • They use multiple highlighting techniques (headings, roadmaps, graphics, etc.) to enable evaluators to scan the document and locate the information they need

1.3. Best Practices
1. Plan content before you write.
2. Organize your bid or proposal according to the customer’s instructions.
3. Make information easy for evaluators to find.
4. Use a structure that layers information for the reader.
5. Group similar ideas and avoid redundancy.
6. Put the most important points first.

2. Persuasive Writing

  • Persuasive writing is:
    • Personal: It is primarily focused on your reader’s needs and preferences
    • About probabilities: Someone else’s solution might be appealing, but your goal is to convince your reader that your solution is the more likely to succeed
    • Conclusive: It leaves no doubt as to the best course of action

2.1. Best Practices

2.1.1. Know your audience so you can use the right techniques to match their perspectives.

2.1.2. Apply the traditional rhetorical principles of argument.

  • Rhetoric supplies basic techniques that proposal writers should consider.

2.1.3. Structure your proposal like an argument

  • The table below shows that a simple, unsolicited proposal structure still carries echoes of the original rhetorical structure of argument.
Argument Structure Proposal Structure

Informs audience of purpose, creates interest, explains approach, establishes credibility

Executive Summary

Declares purpose, creates interest, forecasts approach, establishes credibility, summarizes offer

Statement of Fact

Sets background of the situation, describes context, explains current conditions

Current Environment

Identifies problem, demonstrates understanding of context, establishes needs/wants


States position, presents proofs, expresses value


States solution, validates solutions with proofs, describes benefits


Addresses gaps, responds to contrary positions

Cost Proposal

Defines costs, expresses value


Reinforces opinions, amplifies points, rouses emotion and urgency, summarizes


Reinforces solution and commitments, establishes timeline for delivery, allocates responsibilities, concludes

a) Establish the validity of your proposal with logic
b) Appeal to the emotions of your audience
c) Express an ethical character

2.1.4. Anticipate your readers’ questions so you can remove reasons for rejection.

2.1.5. Apply Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence to hone your arguments with lessons from modern behavioral science.

  • Persuasion is presenting a case in such a way as to sway the opinion of others, make people believe certain information, or motivate a decision.
  • The table below lists and defines the techniques, known collectively as Weapons of Influence, and explains how you can use them in proposals.
Reciprocity Give something to your audience first, knowing their tendency to act in kind. How you give is important: the more personalized and unexpected the gift, the more effective it will be. Refer to any free studies or analyses you have performed to get your customer to the point of purchase. Cite examples of free trials or beta versions given to your customer.
Scarcity The scarcer something is, the greater its value. The value of its benefits and the uniqueness of those benefits are keys to success. Emphasize the unique benefits of your products and services. Ghost your competition by pointing out clearly what you deliver that they don’t.
Authority Get credible, knowledgeable experts to substantiate your claims. For best effect, be introduced by or cite someone with credentials before you make your argument. Gather or solicit positive reviews and testimonies for your projects and products. Cite awards prominently in your summaries.
Consistency Ask for small, initial commitments before you ask readers to take another, bigger risk. This reinforces the strategy of gaining quick, small wins to set the stage for major initiatives. Propose a trial at an individual site before implementing across an enterprise. Create a staged implementation plan to reduce risk across the enterprise.
Liking People say “yes” more often to people they like, to those who cooperate, and to those who are more like themselves. Find and state similarities you share before making your argument. Leverage your relationships with the customer and his/her influencers. Remain customer-centric by assuming his/her voice and terminology. Drop names of people who have delivered good service to a customer.
Social Proof When others do something, it makes it easier for us to follow. Capitalize on the herd mentality. Provide examples of how other companies in your customer’s industry have adopted your solution.

2.1.6. Use graphics and multimedia to immerse your audience in the potential of your solution.

3. Writing Clearly

  • Clear writing makes its points simply, demonstrating a bidder’s competence and quality.
  • Applying principles of clear writing will make the proposal easy to see, follow, and understand, making it easier for readers to say “yes.”
  • The goal is to make readers spend less time untangling the meaning and more time reviewing the solution.

3.1. Best Practices

3.1.1. Tell stories.

  • Telling stories is apt for proposals because they are narratives about what one company plans to do for another and what it has done for other, similar companies.
  • Because proposals are action documents, use human subjects whenever possible.

3.1.2. Write like you talk.

  • Use the same style of English you use in conversation to make your proposals more open and accessible to a wide range of audiences.

3.1.3. Write tight.

  • Clear writing is content that respects your readers’ time by providing everything that is necessary in the briefest space possible.
  • Following are eight techniques for writing tight: three at the paragraph level and five at the sentence level.
    1. State your idea up front and make sure everything else relates.
    2. Keep paragraphs short.
    3. Tie your sentences together to make unified paragraphs.
    4. Use only the words your readers need.
    5. Watch out for long strings of nouns in succession, or “noun stacks.
    6. Use concrete images and precise measures.
    7. Be consistent when using technical terms.
    8. Stay positive.

3.1.4. Show your document’s structure.

  • Make it easier for readers of your proposal to choose your solution, by considering these five techniques:
    1. Write informative headings.
    2. Apply numbered and bulleted lists appropriately.
    3. Transition between sections.
    4. Describe ideas graphically.
    5. Build a familiar schema.

3.1.5. Plan to revise.

  • One must always include ample revision time and cycles for proposals to reduce overall cost, to test the validity of ideas, and to ensure that the writing is ethical.
  • Schedule downtime between writing and editing.
  • Use functional reviews to ensure accuracy, persuasiveness, and appropriateness.

4. Headings

  • Effective headings give readers an overview of the story of your proposal and can help you earn higher evaluation scores.
  • Good headings should convey a clear message, capture the reader’s attention, and address evaluators’ hot buttons or specific requirements. Headings accomplish the following goals:
  • Break large amounts of text into smaller, more manageable sections
  • Make important information easy to locate
  • Simplify complicated information
  • Make your proposal easier to score
  • Guide readers through your “proposal story”

4.1. Best Practices

  1. Follow exact bid request instructions for proposal headings, including heading content, numbering scheme, and heading levels.
  2. Use an informal table of contents.
  3. Use headings to convey key benefits and discriminators.
  4. Use informative and telegraphic headings as appropriate.
  5. Use verb headings to convey action and noun headings to demonstrate your purpose.
  6. Create a clear hierarchy of information.
  7. Maintain consistency throughout your document.

5. Graphics and Action Captions

  • Clear, compelling, audience-focused graphics (including covers) and action captions improve win rates.
  • Presentations that use visual aids are 43 percent more persuasive and graphics also improve recollection up to 86 percent and communicate faster than text alone.
  • Understanding how to effectively use a combination of graphics and text can make the difference between winning and losing a contract.

5.1. Best Practices

5.1.1. Know when, where, and why to use graphics and action captions.

5.1.2. Write action captions and conceptualize graphics before rendering.

  • Use your action caption to conceptualize your graphic. Avoid graphic reuse. Never render a graphic before the action caption is written.
  • Figure 6.1 illustrates the recommended steps to follow to develop a successful proposal graphic.

Figure 6.1. The Four Steps for Developing Successful Proposal Graphics. To develop a successful proposal graphic, begin with an action caption, create a concept, render it, and finally, implement it.

5.1.3. Understand and use basic design principles.

  • Key design principles are:
    • Color
    • Style
    • Consistency
    • Grid
    • Balance
    • Shapes

5.1.4. Use templates.

5.1.5. Objectively validate your graphics.

5.1.6. Understand copyright law.

  • There are two variables to consider when validating that your graphic is successful:
    • Content
    • Aesthetics

5.1.7. Know the differences between graphic file formats.

5.2.   Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

  • Using more detail than needed
  • Failing to explain yourself
  • Making design mistakes

6. Page and Document Design

  • The overall design and layout of your proposal documents is critical not just for communicating your information, but also for making an impression on reviewers and evaluators.
  • There are many important considerations to keep in mind when it comes to document design. For starters, documents must:
    1. Follow instructions or guidelines from the customer, your company, and/or your writing outline
    2. Be aesthetically appealing in an appropriate and professional way
    3. Use design techniques to highlight specific text and information
    4. Be produced efficiently using the tools and resources available
  • Stylistic choices must be made in consideration of any constraints and using an established clear document template.
  • Your team must be empowered with the right tools and an understanding of appropriate metrics and milestones to effectively produce a professional document.

6.1.   Best Practices

  • Understand the desktop publisher’s role.
  • Choose the right tools.
  • Create a document template to ensure compliance and consistency.
  • Schedule effectively using metrics.
  • Prepare for production.
  • Use graphic elements to create emphasis and guide readers.
  • Apply six design strategies to create effective layouts.
    1. Contrast
    2. Proximity
    3. White space
    4. Consistency
    5. Balance
    6. Alignment

Figure 6.2. Six Design Strategies. All six design elements can be used together to create a cohesive and engaging document.

6.2.   Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

  1. Presumptions about staffing and resources
  2. Inconsistency in document formatting
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