Is your proposal really a proposal?

When your proposals aren’t successful, it can be hard to figure out why. Trying to fix this problem on your own is like trying to fix a car when you’re not a mechanic. You can tinker and try things, but it’s hit-and-miss, frustrating and slow.

So let’s start with defining what a proposal really is.

A proposal is a commercial document whose purpose is to influence the customer to say "yes" to you. To achieve this, proposals need a combination of style, substance and relevance.

  • Style is the way the proposal looks and sounds, and how it makes the reader feel.
  • Substance is the content of the proposal, which outlines the offer that you are making to the buyer.
  • Relevance is the “fit” between the offer and the problems and aspirations of the customer.

Problems occur when any one of these elements is missing; the “proposal” becomes a brochure, a report, or a presentation. All of these are interesting in their own right, but none are likely to get you hired.

When there’s style and substance, but no relevance to the customer, your proposal becomes a Brochure. This is a generic document that looks and sounds great, but could apply to anyone. Studies show that brochures are useful in consumer businesses, particularly retail trade and in tourism. If you’re selling to business and government, not so much.

When there’s substance and relevance, but a lack of style, customers read the proposal as if it’s a Report. Proposals are about selling the job; reports are about doing the job.

Customers are trained to read reports as a set of recommendations - not all of which may be adopted.

Where there is style and relevance, you’ve got a Presentation. In his book Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff, a venture capital consultant who pitches multi-million dollar deals for a living, says that customers often see sales presentations as “the morning’s entertainment” - a pleasant enough way to spend an hour, maybe even to learn something new, but probably not to buy anything.

So, is your proposal really a proposal? Or is it something else? Identifying the problem is the start of the solution.