The Basics of Proposal Writing

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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

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

Alan Weiss

Alan Weiss is one of those rare people who can say he is a consultant, speaker and author and mean it. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc. has attracted clients such as Merck, Hewlett-Packard, GE, Mercedes-Benz, State Street Corporation, Times Mirror Group, The Federal Reserve, The New York Times, and over 400 other leading organizations. He serves on the boards of directors of the Trinity Repertory Company, a Tony-Award-winning New England regional theater, and the Newport International Film Festival. His speaking typically includes 30 keynotes a year at major conferences, and he has been a visiting faculty member at Case Western Reserve University, Boston College, Tufts, St. John's, the University of Illinois, the Institute of Management Studies, and the University of Georgia Graduate School of Business. He has held an appointment as adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Business at the University of Rhode Island where he taught courses on advanced management and consulting skills. He holds the record for selling out the highest priced workshop (on entrepreneurialism) in the 21-year history of New York City's Learning Annex. His Ph.D. is in psychology and he is a member of the American Psychological Society, the American Counseling Association, Division 13 of the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He was recently appointed to the Board of Governors of Harvard University's Center for Mental Illness and the Media. He has keynoted for the American Psychological Association on two occasions...

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