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Writing a Good Proposal Document or Report

August 14, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Business Writing

Writing a Good Proposal Document or Report

There are many circumstances in which a requirement exists to write a formal proposal. Some of these include:

  • To obtain some grant of other funding for a task, event or project
  • To propose a new idea or project of some kind
  • To undertake some new research or study activity
  • To present a product or a service in a particular way

Whether it is one of the above or for some other reason, any well put-together proposal should outline a clear plan to fill a well-defined need, and subsequently offer any reader the opportunity to assess your overall plan. This assessment will therefore be significantly affected by how well you have written your proposal and the extent to which it has answered the key questions of WHAT you are proposing, HOW you plan to do it, WHEN you plan to do it, and HOW MUCH it is going to cost.

Before any individual begins writing any proposal (short or long), there are three key questions you should first consider (all related to the audience). These are:

  1. Who is my audience for this proposal?  Here, you need to make sure that you think about your audience and what they might already know or not know about the subject or the proposal (which will inform you about how much detail you may need to include in the main body or in appendices to it).
  2. What do I want my audience to get from my proposal? The overall purpose of the proposal should be clear to readers as early as possible. In other words, readers should not have to guess what you are requesting in the proposal or have to read a long document before realizing what the goal of it is.
  3. How can I make sure my audience appreciates what I want of them? The best way to write a proposal is to put yourself in the shoes of your readers. This means thinking about what they need to appreciate as far as the facts and the points are concerned and what reaction or action you expect from them as a result of reading your proposal (even if it is just to ask questions, or offer input of some kind).

Once you have addressed these audience related questions, you can then turn to actually writing the proposal and to this end here are five suggested best-practices which should help to ensure that any proposal is a winning one.

1. Always aim to be responsive to the needs of your proposal readers

Proposals tend to be written in response to an external request for it (often called a request for proposal or RFP) or an internal requirement to influence a particular group of people (a management team for example).  If your proposal is the result of an RFP, you’ve been given a template to follow and you should follow it very precisely. If it’s not written for an RFP then there is considerably more room to write what you like but this does not mean that anything goes. In this case you need to give your intended readers a logical path that they can readily follow.

To create a logical path with as much clarity as possible requires three things:

  • Doing your research well. Research the prospect’s business and industry. Brains and charm alone won’t get you invited into anything sustainable.
  • Asking questions of people and listening to what the proposal needs to include before you start writing.
  • Keeping the proposal simple and laying out your argument in step-by-step fashion 

2. Use Plain language throughout

Every proposal no matter how short or long should be readable and engaging. One of the best ways to achieve this is to write pretty much in the same way you speak. This entails avoiding long words, keeping sentences short, not using unnecessary or confusing jargon and keeping the whole proposal targeted on the subject at hand (and not perhaps related but tangential areas). In addition always review the whole proposal when it’s been written and try to edit it to be a short as possible without losing any meaning. 

3. Appeal to your reader(s) in a variety of ways

The vast majority of proposals are dull and boring. Apart from being long and wordy, they are often written in a dry an unappealing style and with little to appeal to a reader in terms of layout, graphics, charts, pictures, color, clear headings or bulleted points etc. If you want your proposal to stand out and to have a chance of being read properly, it is therefore imperative to include several of these devices to help lift its overall appeal.

Once useful way to think about your proposal and its overall capacity to appeal to its readers is that you need to tell your story in any way that can get people’s attention and interest. If you writing style is elegant this may be enough but if its average all the more reason to make the proposal look good in any way that you can. 

4. Keep focused and to the Point

The word proposal means “the act of offering or suggesting something for acceptance, adoption, or performance.” It is important not to stray away from this definition too much despite the temptation to do so. In other words, it may appear to be helpful to load up any proposal with a lot of detail and extra material (to help the reader see the full picture). However, this extra material can get long and wordy and the proposal can “drift” or start to lose focus. Far better then, to ensure that the whole document is short, pithy and completely to the point. 

5. Keep and use saved material and input

For most people, writing a proposal is never a one-off exercise but a task that will be repeated frequently. This may be once a week, once a month or even only once or twice in a year. In all cases however, it is always better to be able to draw on as much of the written resources as you can from previously saved documents and not have to create them from “scratch” each time. One simple way to do this is to create a folder on your computer, lap top or tablet with all of the documents and files that you may need to draw upon again in future proposals. This may include introductory and other general text narratives, tables, charts, images, spread-sheet data, organization charts and even video clips where useful and generic enough. These can then be inserted and edited to fit the new proposal where necessary and save yourself a lot of work. Another and more sophisticated way of doing this is to consider buying/using one of the many proposal writing software packages that are now available on the market. These help you to store generic material, draw on it and edit it with even more ease and then present the new proposal in an entirely new design or layout in many cases. This may or may not be a worthwhile extra step but it is something to consider.

Summary

Ultimately, a proposal should always be judged on whether or not it achieved its goal. For internal proposals this will be did the readers/stakeholders adopt the plan presented in the proposal or take up the idea put forward in it? For an external proposals or a response to an RFP this will be did the proposal win out?  In both cases, every one of the above steps should help you to achieve greater success in this aim.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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