How long should your proposal be?

One of the most common questions I am asked about proposals is ‘how long does my proposal need to be?’ The answer is, ‘only as long as it takes to get you hired’. 

Every week, I conduct independent reviews of proposals (both successful and unsuccessful) for organisations who find it impossible to get good feedback from customers, and are keen to improve their success rates.

One of the consistent findings from these reviews is that shorter proposals are usually more successful than very long ones.

That’s because a proposal is a commercial document with only one purpose; to have the customer say ‘yes’ to you. Anything that doesn’t fit this purpose – like including irrelevant material, or long, wordy descriptions of your credentials or methodology – gives the customer reasons to say ‘no’ to you instead. 

Recently, I conducted a study into supplier experiences of competitive tendering and dealing with procurement. A summary of the report from this study, Smiling But Sinking, was published by SmartCompany

One of the most striking findings from the study was how fast proposal deadlines are shrinking, and suppliers are now given only half the time that they believe they need.

About a decade ago, the most common timeframe given to respond to a competitive tender was about four weeks, but this has changed.

Most participants said that they are now given two weeks to respond to a tender in their business or industry (52.8%), while almost the same percentage (50%) said that they believe four weeks is a reasonable timeframe.  

97.6% agreed that tender deadlines are getting shorter, while response requirements either have not changed or have increased.

You’d think that shorter deadlines would be a good thing, because this would result in shorter proposals. Instead, we are seeing the opposite.

Shorter deadlines are delivering longer, more generic, and more confusing proposals, rather than shorter, more customer-specific and more relevant ones.

  • In our time-poor state, we are becoming even more reliant on canned content that is copied and pasted from previous submissions, regardless of how relevant it is.
  • With less time to plan and build win strategies, we are also becoming more anxious, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the proposal just in case it later proves to be important. 
  • We have less time than ever to edit our proposals and remove superfluous material. (An age-old problem: 17th century inventor Blaise Pascale famously said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, as I have not had time to make it shorter”).

Time is the new money.

Respect the customer’s time, and your own time, by spending it where it will matter most – on giving them reasons to hire you.