How should you design and layout your proposals?

To win a proposal, you need a great offer. But how you present your offer is also important, because presentation has a big impact on how well your offer is received.

We get seven seconds to make a first impression and one-third of consumer purchasing decisions are based on packaging.

55% of the information we take in during a presentation is visual, and only 7% is text. A study by the Wharton Research Centre also showed that using visual slides in a presentation has a dramatic effect on message retention after 3 days – with 50% message retention for visual slides and only 10% for bullet points.

Proposals are, by definition, fairly complex documents. The key to presenting them well is to keep them simple, which helps the buyer to navigate the proposal and find the information they need.

Great proposal presentation begins with the tools you use to create your proposal layout.

Not all proposal tools are created equal. So let’s take a look at some commonly available tools you might use to create your proposal format; what they are, why they work, and when and how to use them.

Desktop publishing software, such as Adobe InDesign

The gold standard for proposal design and layout is to have a typesetter or professional graphic designer do it for you. If you've seen a beautifully designed proposal that is presented in multiple columns with icons and infographics, pull quotes, beautiful fonts, and high-end photographs, chances are it was designed by a professional using InDesign or similar.

Why it works:

Designers know how to get people to pay attention to the words on a page, and professionally designed proposals use all the tricks of magazine layout to do exactly that.

When to use it:

 In some industries, professional proposal design and layout is the norm. If you're in high-end professional services, construction, architecture, engineering and project management, or you are pitching for multi-million dollar contracts, this is the standard you should be looking towards and that you will probably be competing against.

If you're a smaller firm or you don't have in-house design resources, consider getting a professional designer to work on covers and page layouts for you. You may not have the time or the budget to get your proposals professionally designed every time, but this will definitely improve the overall presentation.

PowerPoint proposals

PowerPoint is built for presentations, but I'm increasingly seeing PowerPoint proposals used for proposals.        

Why it works:

PowerPoint works well for proposals because it’s designed for visuals, and not for text. There's not a lot of room on a PowerPoint slide, so it’s impossible to cram in too much writing, forcing you to stick to the point. You can do more with colour, you can do more with design and layout, and it's impossible for your proposal to get too long if you use this format.

When to use it:

PowerPoint proposals are ideal when you’re going to make your pitch in person first, and need to leave a PDF of the proposal as a reminder of what you discussed. They also work well in industries where you have a lot of visual evidence to illustrate your claims.

PowerPoint works best when you are directing the buying discussion, and you are free to design and layout the proposal in any way you want. It’s less useful for tender responses, where you need to stick to the buyer’s prescribed response format and templates.

Word Documents converted to PDF

Many organisations still use Word for the majority of proposals, particularly where there isn’t a centralised bid or tender team and/or there are many staff members who need to produce their own individual quotes or proposals.

Why it works:

Word is a valid way to format proposals. The key to getting Word proposals right is to have a nice clean template designed that looks modern, up to date, and fresh, allows you to insert (but not stretch or shrink) graphics, and leaves enough white space that you don’t end up overcrowding the text.

When to use it:

Word proposals, by definition, are available to almost everyone because Word software is loaded onto most computers. Because of this, they can all start to look the same, and it can be difficult to tinker too much with the design and layout of Word templates if you want the average Word user to be able to use them.

Word proposals are perfectly fine if you're responding to competitive tenders that have a lot of content, and when you don't have a lot of time to complete the proposal. Occasionally, in a competitive tender, you might need to submit a raw Word document (instead of a PDF) if the RFT requests this for audit purposes.


Excel proposals

Sometimes you will still see competitive tenders issued with an Excel template for the non-price criteria, as well as for the price criteria. This is a sure sign that price is really the most important factor, and that the request has been written by somebody who doesn't care very much about the words.

Why it works:

Unfortunately, when it comes to written content, it really doesn’t. Excel is exceptionally unfriendly when it comes to presenting any kind of text.

When to use it:

If you're unlucky enough to be faced with an Excel template in which you must complete a written proposal, keep your words to a minimum, make sure your formatting is easy to read, and make your responses short and to the point.

Which of these options are you using now? And how can you up your game?

For example, if you're currently working mostly with Word, consider how you can introduce some PowerPoint proposals.

In my Pimp My Proposals program, I’ve worked with organisations that use both, and that have seen a dramatic difference in the win rates of their PowerPoint proposals when compared to the Word-based ones.

If you're already using a combination of Word and PowerPoint, consider getting some professional design advice - particularly if this is an expectation in your industry, and your competitors are already doing this, because your proposals will seem amateurish by comparison.