When is a proposal not a proposal?

A proposal is a commercial document, written with the sole purpose of convincing a potential customer to say "yes" to you. To achieve this result, proposals need three things – style, substance, and relevance.  

Style isn’t just about how the proposal looks; it’s about how it sounds, the stories that it tells, and how it makes the buyer feel.

Substance is the content of the proposal; it outlines the offer you are making to the buyer in enough detail that they can understand what they’re actually getting from you.

Relevance is the “fit” between your offer and how well it solves the customer’s problem, or, delivers something that they aspire to.

You’ll run into problems whenever any one of these elements is lacking.

Where there’s style and substance, but no specific relevance to the customer, you may as well be handing them a brochure. 

Brochures are generic documents. They may look and sound great, but what’s in them could apply to anyone – and often ends up appealing to no one.

If your business is in tourism or the retail trade, by all means, go ahead with a brochure. Brochures are a valuable part of the marketing mix in these sectors. 

But if you’re selling to business or to government, don’t bother. According to a study by Sirius Decisions, up to 70% of content and collateral created by marketing departments in business-to-business organisations sits unused.  There are much better places to spend your time and energy.

Where there’s substance and relevance, but a lack of style, customers read the proposal as if it’s a report.

Reports may be useful after your work has been completed, but they’re counterproductive before this.  

Customers are accustomed to treating a report as a set of recommendations, not all of which may be adopted. This is the exact opposite of what you want your proposal to achieve.

Finally, where there is style and relevance, but no substance, you’ve got yourself a presentation. This won’t work either.

In his book Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff - a venture capital consultant who pitches multi-million dollar deals for a living - found out the hard way that customers 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.

If you’d rather be selling something instead, make sure your proposal gives the customer an offer they can actually buy.