How to write a winning proposal in 10 steps

How to write a winning proposal in 10 steps

Picture of Caroline Boot

Caroline Boot

Director. MBA (Hons). BSc. Dip Tchg. Dip Math Ed. MNZIM.
Winning proposal

Developing business proposals or tenders is probably not your core business. But the difference between a great tender and an average one can have a significant impact on your business success.

Most of us operate in a sea of information overload. It’s incredibly difficult to sort data relevant to our own business from the kind of blah we are bombarded with daily.

Tender evaluators tell us that it’s a huge relief to find a tender response that shows understanding of the contract and the client’s needs. They constantly complain that the information they asked for is absent, difficult to find, or communicated in a manner that’s obtuse and hard to understand.

Powerful, compelling documents and presentations are rare – and valuable.

Effective writing is like an iceberg.

To create a brilliant document – the 20% above the surface that your client will award the contract on – you need to invest 80% of your time and effort  below the surface: analysing, structuring, planning, reviewing, proofing and editing.

For every 20 minutes spent actually writing the words, you should aim to spend around 80 minutes doing homework. This involves:

  • Assessing what to write
  • Analyzing your communication objectives
  • Creating a framework that makes it easy for our readers to find what they’re looking for
  • Carefully developing the core messages that will compel your readers to buy in
  • Making sure your document is 100% well presented, with clear use of language, easy flow of ideas, and (of course!) no spelling or grammatical errors
  • Critically reviewing it to make sure you’ve got everything right.

A 10-step plan

This plan is designed to help you with putting together your next proposal or tender. Here’s how to start.

1. Work out what your client is really looking for

What the client says they are looking for, and what they really mean, can quite often be two different things. A little research, combined with some solid investigation of their situation, is time well spent!

  • We suggest you talk to your contact at every opportunity, look at their website and/ or company profile, and contact others who know them and their business.
  • Find out what has led them to seek your products or services. Have they been previously dissatisfied? Is their need changing? What is driving their request for a proposal?
  • What is their core business? What values are important to them? How will your unique selling proposition help them? Why is your offer the best alternative? What experience do they have of other similar products or services?

2. Analyse the competition

Your client’s buying decisions are very often shaped by their previous experience with you and/or your competitors. It will certainly be influenced by comparing your proposal with any others they have asked for. Here are some areas to focus on:

  • Finding out about their experiences – both positive and negative – is easiest if you have the opportunity to talk to them directly.
  • Find out who you’re bidding against, and any information you can about their previous performance on jobs that the client will know about.
  • If you can’t find out directly who your competition is and what your competitive advantages might be over them, you’ll need to do your own investigation! Consider:
  1. What size of company can best supply the product or service your client is after?
  2. What relationships might already exist?
  3. What is the track record of the competition like in this field (and how can you make yours look better?)

3. Pin down your win themes 

Knowing how your strengths might compare in your client’s marketplace against others, as well as against their priorities, is the first step in determining your win themes.

  • You will need to decide on the two or three unique factors that will persuade your client that yours is the best proposal to meet their needs. These should form the most important part of your proposal’s Executive Summary. 

Win themes need to be simply and clearly worded, communicated to any others who are also working on your proposal, and carried as consistent themes throughout your communications with your clients, and, of course, your proposal.

  • It’s helpful to write your win themes out and display them where you and anyone else who is involved will constantly see them.
  • It’s sometimes an effective technique to write your Executive Summary at this stage, and ask other contributors to comment. It’s a great tool to help you and your team to focus and articulate the factors that are really going to win you the bid.

4. Make sure the presentation is on point

Bells and whistles will not do the trick, but do make sure you present professional looking document.

  • Make sure your logo is on the front cover. Put together a table of contents that’s simple, brief and clear – if possible, keep it on one page.
  • Insert photos with relevant captions that show your capability and reinforce your win themes in relation to their aims and objectives. 
  • A graphic designer or expert in MS Word can add value to your document – and leave you with tools that can be used again and again.

5. Seek outside inputs early and chase them

If you need prices or information from other parties, plan this and ask for their input as soon as possible. Give a firm deadline for their responses that gives you enough time to adequately assess their contribution.

If you’re getting subcontractor prices from several different parties, ask for attribute information at the outset. If the response has not come in by the deadline, follow up and make it clear that you need the information right away. The last thing you want is to be pressed when having to make crucial decisions that could determine the profitability of your contract in the long term.

6. Set out your proposal structure

This is a crucial area which can make or break the evaluator’s decision. If you know what factors they will be evaluating against, then where possible set out your document structure so it matches those criteria.

If you are given a set structure for your proposal, make sure you stick to it! Those evaluating your proposal and comparing it with others do not want an added frustration of having to search for the information they asked for.

Manage your bid process as though you’ve already won the contract – don’t leave everything until the last minute. 

7. Weight the sections and allocate space appropriately

Some Requests for Proposal tell you the evaluation weightings that will be applied. Others leave it open.

If you know or can guess the relative weightings of the components of your proposal, then make sure you apply a proportionate amount of energy (and space) to those sections which are heavily weighted.

8. Use your best available information to develop your profile

Start with the detail, and work outwards, finishing with the conclusion. If you’ve already written the draft Executive Summary, you will want to tweak it later based on any further information that comes in while you’re preparing the bid.

Remember to keep your language simple – technical details and complex concepts are less likely to sell your proposal than developing the reader’s trust that you will deliver on your promises.

The win themes that you identified earlier should be used throughout your document, building confidence in your abilities to deliver the outcomes your client considers are most important.

9. Edit, proof, edit and proof

Using clear, easy-to-follow language is an essential component of writing even the most technically complex proposals. If readers are distracted by having to read sentences over and over in order to fully understand them, your message will be compromised.

Here are some tips:

  • Use bullet points and lists wherever possible, but try to keep them short, preferably no more than seven.
  • Ensure that the formatting in your document is consistent (if you’re not already familiar with using styles and formatting in Word, we recommend you learn!)
  • Prune your sentences to keep one main idea in each. Avoid waffle and repetition.
  • Use short paragraphs (two or three sentences) to ensure the main idea introduced in each paragraph is reinforced succinctly.
  • Use sub-headings. These help to break up your document and give your reader a sense of the developing argument.

10. Critical Review

There are several different dimensions to effective reviews at this stage, and each involves a different mental process. For example, it’s just not possible for most people’s brains to critically edit the technical content or clarity of the message in a document at the same time as checking for double full stops! 

The dimensions of reviewing and editing the content of a tender proposal fall into these categories:

  • Is there a strong unique selling proposition or win theme that is supported and reinforced throughout the document?
  • Does the information answer the questions in the RFT?
  • Is the depth of information given appropriate to the intention and weighting of the question in the RFT?
  • Is there logical flow and easy, direct language to lead the reader through your offer?
  • Is the information internally consistent?

To achieve a really rigorous review, you’ll need to either review the document several times sequentially – each time for a different factor as above – or ask different people to review for different dimensions. 

If you can, ask a suitably experienced manager or colleague to do a shadow evaluation. Where the RFP provides a score sheet, ask him or her to complete it and provide feedback. Ask them to complete as many objections (“Yes, but…”) as possible.

This should give you a good idea of whether you need to beef up some sections, and whether you have made your win themes as compelling and transparent as possible.

There’s no doubt that people judge your business by what is written about it – as much as by how well you do what you do.

In today’s world of spam and junk mail, you have only one chance to create a lasting impression on your client.

If you take the time to ensure that your tender is tailored to your client’s needs and present your proposition in the best possible light, you give your business the best chance to win the contract.