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The Basics of Proposal Writing

Excerpted from the new book
How to Write A Proposal That’s Accepted Every Time
Kennedy Publications, December, 1998

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. A proposal is simply an offer of ideas or actions extended to another party for consideration and agreement.

If I suggest to you that we go to the local theater tonight to catch the Laurel and Hardy Film Festival, I’m making a proposal. It’s an idea that might or might not capture your fancy, and which you may accept, alter, or reject. (My wife invariably rejects Laurel and Hardy.) If you suggest to a prospect that you can alleviate the prospect’s client attrition problems through a six-month, $350,000 intervention, that, too, is a proposal.

It’s helpful to understand that proposals are not inanimate documents which occur at some point in a business deal. Those documents, when they exist, are merely tangible summations of the ideas being agreed upon. In the business environment, proposals are actually based on conceptual agreement between you and a prospective client about what is to be accomplished, how it will happen, when it will occur, where it will occur, who is accountable for its occurring, and, most importantly, the degree to which you will confidently know it has occurred.

When people say, “We sealed it with a handshake,” what they mean is that they gained conceptual agreement on those factors and demonstrated their intent to move ahead. If documents followed later, they were merely a formality to enable others to understand what’s intended, satisfy legal requirements, and/or stipulate payment terms.

In the consulting profession, proposals should be summations and not explorations. That is, a written proposal should merely summarize the conceptual agreements previously established, and provide the opportunity to review them in writing, select possible options for implementation, verify the payment terms, and formally consummate the relationship. Written proposals are static. They do some things well, but can’t do some other things at all.

Proposals can and should do the following:

  • Stipulate the outcomes of the project
  • Describe how progress will be measured
  • Establish accountabilities
  • Set the intended start and stop dates
  • Provide methodologies to be employed
  • Explain options available to the client
  • Convey the value of the project
  • Detail the terms and conditions of payment of fees and reimbursements
  • Serve as an ongoing template for the project
  • Establish boundaries to avoid “scope creep”
  • Protect both consultant and client
  • Offer reasonable guarantees and assurances

Proposals cannot and/or should not do the following:

  • Sell the interventions being recommended
  • Create the relationship
  • Serve as a commodity against which other proposals are compared
  • Provide the legitimacy and/or credentials of your firm and approaches
  • Validate the proposed intervention
  • Make a sale to a buyer you have not met
  • Serve as a negotiating position
  • Allow for unilateral changes during the project
  • Protect one party at the expense of the other
  • Position approaches so vaguely as to be unmeasurable and unenforceable