Tips for Writing Formal Business Proposals

By Natalie Canavor

Most RFPs (request for proposals) require formal, standardized responses. This is true in most big-business situations, and also for many grant applications. You may have a list of specifications to meet and a prescribed format. If you do, follow those specifications to the letter, especially if you’re bidding for a government contract. At other times, you may have more leeway to organize your document as you like, or to interpret a set of guidelines.

For help with preparing a long-form, high-stakes proposal, check out Internet resources and business management books. You can find abundant good advice on formatting and specific buzzwords to use, but you probably can’t find much about the process of writing the proposal itself. Not to worry. Here are several tips for answering RFPs that can make the difference between winning a bid and losing out:

  • Tell a story. Even if the prescribed format makes storytelling tough, use the space to communicate a cohesive picture of what you recommend, what you’ll do, and why you’re the best person or company to do the job. True, specialists may scrutinize only a few sections, but key readers review the whole document and want it to make sense cumulatively — with as little repetition as possible.
  • Know your audience’s goal. If you’re pitching for a complex contract, take the time to understand the company and the problem it’s trying to solve — it’s always there. Read the RFP exhaustively between the lines and research the organization to see how the requested work fits into the company’s overall needs — and by extension, how you can fit in. In doing this, you’ll pick up keywords to incorporate and better understand the company’s “voice” so you can respond in kind and show you’re on the same wavelength.
  • Give your audiences what they need. Include content and details that specifically match audience expectations. Remember that most businesspeople want to increase profitability or efficiency. All reviewers want to know a project’s timetable, how you measure success, the budget, who will do the work and their credentials, and your track record and specific qualifications for the job.
  • Write simply and conversationally. Use a slightly more formal tone than you’d use for everyday communication — fewer contractions, for example — but don’t sound overly academic and stuffy. It’s best to write in the third person, with the company as an entity, unless you are the central or the only person involved. A two-person organization can use “we,” and if you have a virtual team to call on, “we” is also okay. Make your language lively but jargon-free.
  • Speak their language. Notice any statements that are emphasized or repeated. These are clues to the organization’s hot buttons and perhaps sensitivities honed by experience. Incorporate key phrases and ideas in your responses, but don’t come across as if you’re parroting back their words rather than providing the answers they hope for. And be sure to explain how you’ll measure outcomes!
  • Remember the decision is about you. Whatever you’re proposing, you’re asking someone to choose you and your team. Never skimp the biographical section. Show why each team member is right for the role, how the team works together, its accomplishments, and why you in particular can be trusted to deliver on time, within budget, and to specification.
  • Go for the proof. Don’t say “the team is creative, reliable, and efficient.” Cite examples, case histories, statistics, and testimonials that demonstrate these points, as appropriate. Impress with substance rather than empty claims. “Tests show that our concrete lasts 16 percent longer than other varieties” is better than “our concrete lasts forever.”
  • Edit and proof your work. After writing, review and correct your document in several stages. One error costs you your credibility. Ask a friend with sharp eyes to proof for you, too. If you fail to showcase your ability to communicate well and correctly within the document itself, you lose ground regardless of what you’re trying to win.
  • Make it look good. Your competitors will. Use all the graphic options to help your proposal read well and easily. Give your readers opportunities to rest their eyes. Include relevant graphics — images, graphs, charts, infographics — but they must never be extraneous. If a lot rests on this document, ask a friend with design ability for guidance. Or find a good model and adapt elements of its design or the whole layout.

Often, those issuing the RFP provide a route for asking questions. Don’t be too proud to do take advantage of this! If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, better to find out first. If you don’t understand a requirement, say so. If you don’t know what supporting materials are welcome, ask. Take care to sound intelligent, listen, and follow up on the clues. The process is necessarily impersonal, but like all business, relationships matter — a lot. Use available opportunities to build those relationships as well as pinpoint helpful information.

Always do a big-picture review of your document before sending out a proposal. Ask yourself (or a colleague) the following questions:

  • Did I demonstrate my understanding of the problem or goal?
  • Did I explain who we are and why we’re the best choice?
  • Did I clearly state what I will do to address the problem and the expected outcomes?
  • Did I clearly spell out what “success” will look like and how it will be measured?

If different people worked on the proposal, has the whole piece been edited to read consistently and well?

Many candidates focus proposals on process and short-sell results. For example, a training proposal to update staff technology skills should talk less about how many workshops the program includes and more about the gains that result in efficiency, problem-solving, and error-reduction after the training. When possible, give the client a vision of how much better his people will function, or how his processes will improve, or how life and the world will be better if you are awarded the opportunity. But the vision must have “feet” — a solid grounding in actual possibility, not pie in the sky.

And, remember the professional proposal writer’s mantra: Be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive.