A practical approach to writing proposals…

January 21, 2010Jake DiMare

Over the years I have been very fortunate to learn how to generate effective proposals from some really brilliant people. Recently I started taking little pieces of what I have learned and begun synthesizing my own, unique approach.
This is a really valuable skill and I’d like to share it. If more people know how to write solid agreements and do a better job with managing projects in general (something I also plan to share) it will genuinely serve to elevate everyone’s value…And rates (hopefully). In addition, I want to solidify my thoughts on the subject and I find documenting them is a very useful exercise. Over the years the documents I write slowly evolve as a result of getting in one jam or another and I rarely stop to think about the process outside of when I am writing them.
This entry will feature information useful to anyone who does write or may be in the position to write business proposals and/or agreements. It will be best suited for people in service oriented industries such as construction, consulting or advertising. It might also be interesting to anyone who is involved in the subject of business in general.
Also, before I begin, I’d also like to point out that I am a high school drop-out. Any information contained in my blog is the result of practical experience. I have no legal expertise and no college education. (This paragraph is the first lesson in creating effective agreements. Always take care to set expectations on which you can deliver.) By the way, most of the information I will share is stuff you could learn from a book if you were so inclined…I recommend the PMBOK.
There are generally five parts to a proposal/agreement:

  • Introduction
  • Statement of Work
  • Schedule
  • Budget
  • Boilerplate

Let’s look at the boilerplate first.
Boilerplate is the legal jargon that is often in the fine print. It varies from contract to contract and it covers the company’s legal interests. Typically it will include items like indemnification, cancellation terms, arbitration agreements and other covenants which are best handled by a lawyer. It is incredibly important to remember that unless you are the owner of the business or you are a lawyer, boilerplate is not your responsibility. Further, pretending to have the ability to write boilerplate is irresponsible and unethical. The rule of thumb is simple: Don’t try to be a lawyer if you aren’t one.
However, as is often the case if you work for a small business, your employer may ask you to find some boilerplate. If this happens go online and search for other contracts in your field of work or go to a web site that sells legal documents. Be sure to read it and make adjustments so it matches your unique needs. Make sure you get approval on it from someone more important than yourself…That way it is their responsibility. Don’t try to be a hero in this area.
The next part of a proposal I would like to look at is the introduction. In my opinion the introduction section should not be a greeting letter. It should not be three pages of marketing jargon promoting your company. If a potential client gets to the point they are ready to request an agreement they have probably already decided they are willing to do business with you.
Instead, try to take the opportunity to demonstrate you have done your research and know who the client is and what their requirements are. I can’t stress this enough because it is the most common mistake I see in proposals. Stay focused on the client…not you or your company. Do this right and your attentiveness and eye for detail will tell the client everything they need to know about your ability to deliver. Briefly describe their needs as you understand them. Outline the contents of your document so the reader knows what they can expect. Finally, use a paragraph to point out your enthusiasm and flexibility. The specific contract you are writing only outlines one approach and you should remain completely open to alternatives.
When describing the work you will do keep it in the future tense. Use statements like ‘the application will provide…’ or ‘this new home addition will include…’ after all, you are describing something that does not yet exist. This simple rule will also improve your writing in general…which is something your proposal will be judged on. For the most part people are more comfortable doing business with people at least as intelligent as they are and nothing illustrates ignorance better than terrible writing. I know this from years of very painful experience.
Tomorrow we’ll break down the most important component of a service industry contract: the statement of work.

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