How to write universe-conquering proposals
Ian Lurie Nov 6 2012
AKA: ‘Because I said so’ doesn’t work
This is a really long post. But before you TL;DR it, give it a quick skim. The first half is hand-waving stuff about answering ‘Why?’ The second half is specific tips on doing proposals that build imputed value.
Writing a great proposal is hard. The question you’re trying to answer is “Why should I hire you?” But we spend a lot of time ducking and dodging around that question, instead. Typically, our proposals translate to ‘because I said so!’. Which really doesn’t work. So, I gave this presentation at Distilled’s most excellent SearchLove conference.
I use the learning from a fantastic book called Starting With Why, by Simon Sinek. I cite it a few more times. You should just go read it now.
Kids: Nature’s way of teaching us to write great proposals
My son turned 12 in March. He’s a great kid, but he’s definitely hitting the “Let’s see what makes dad produce that ‘grrrnnpphhhh’ sound he makes when someone cuts him off on the freeway” phase of his life.
Harrison’s growing realization that I’m a festering dolt has led him to use one word a lot, in a tone that indicates his complete, biologically-inspired scorn at how stupid I’ve become:
Me: Harrison, stop playing video games.
Me: Because you need exercise.
Me: Because otherwise you’ll turn into a hairless tribble.
Harrison: That’s dumb. Really, why?
Me: Because otherwise (sound of plug pulled from video game)
To be fair, I’ve only hit the plug-pulling stage once or twice. Like I said: He’s a good kid. Usually I take a bouncy detour straight to “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” which in my mind is actually “BECAUSE I F–
–-G SAID SO!”
I tend to exaggerate (cough) so I though I should test just how bad the ‘why’ epidemic is in the Lurie household: I did a quick experiment this week. I told Harrison I’d pay him $5 if he could go an entire day without asking me ‘why?’ in response to a request. He made it 15 minutes.
With kids, we can occasionally get away with “because I said so”. Now and then, though, we have to do a really good job of answering ‘why’. Sometimes, “Because you’ll feel a lot better the rest of the day” works better than unplugging the video game
With potential clients or bosses, we can never, ever use Because I Said So. But we try it all the time.
I had this lesson pounded into me over 12 years of parenting and 17 years of proposal writing. You can take a shortcut: Read the rest of this post.
Stop playing it safe
Whether a potential client asks this question or not, when you write a proposal, you’re usually answering it:
If you’re working with an internal client at a big company, the question is something more like “Why should I do what you ask?” But the effective question is the same: “Why?”
They’re asking ‘why?’ and your first impulse is to write something like:
Luckily your brain intervenes and stops you. It says: I won’t be standing there when they read it. That’s true. So smart-assery probably isn’t a good idea. Unfortunately, your brain keeps going, and you think I’d better avoid anything that could be misinterpreted, and make sure I list every possible option.
So, you deliver a laundry list like this:
You answer with a babble of ‘how’, trying to bury the reader with information.
Sometimes, you answer with a weasel of ‘what’ instead: Something like “We’ll help you improve ROI.” Either one lumps you in with five other yawn-inspiring proposals. The client responds by skimming the first page or two, then skipping to bid.
Both of these answers equate to a shrug and “Because I said so.” You failed to answer the reader’s question, and guaranteed that she’ll remember you only for your estimate.
If you want to really learn the thinking behind ‘why’ versus ‘how/what’, then read a awesome book called Starting With Why, by Simon Sinek. Sinek dives deep into the subject—you’ll learn a lot of great stuff about successful leadership. Read it.
Because I Said So doesn’t create relationships
I’ve never had a great client relationship start with a client telling me “You had the longest list of services” or “You promised us the highest ROI” or (god forbid) “You were the cheapest.” Those are what and how issues.
I have had lots of great relationships start with “We really enjoyed talking to you!” or “We just felt like you get it.” That kind of connection happens when you answer Why.
Great, Ian. How do I answer ‘why’?
First, you need to understand why you do what you do. I find the easiest way to figure that out is to fill in the blank in this statement: “I run my business because I believe ______________.”
That’s should be the easy part (if it’s not, definitely read Sinek’s book). You have to explain that belief in the context of your potential client’s own beliefs. That’s a lot harder. My short cut is to fill in the blank in this statement:
If you ____ then we’re the agency for you.
Take my favorite TV show. If you asked the Eleventh Doctor for his Why, it’d be something like this:
Translate that to the viewer’s point of view, and he’d say something like:
I know: That’s fake. What about a real example? Here’s Portent’s Why:
We are in business because we believe that great marketing can save the world by connecting people to what matters.
And, here’s our proposal-friendly version:
If you think what you do matters, and want to work with folks who know that means it all matters, then we’re your agency.
Why is our value. It’s what we can bring to our clients. Not SEO. Not PPC. Not rankings or links or even ROI. Lots of folks can bring that. And, if the clients are nodding up and down when we talk about it, then we know we’ll work well together.
We can write this in our proposal, and/or say it when we meet with the potential client. But the real trick is making your proposal ooze this from every pore. It must be imputed.
The How must parallel the Why: Imputed value
Steve jobs believed in imputed value: The idea that customers should see, feel and know the Why not just because you say it, but also because everything about the product they have in their hands, or the ad they just saw, or the store they’re in is in sync with that ideal. In other words, the How must parallel the Why. Get those in sync and you’ll have a fantastic proposal.
Your Answer must be implicit. If you say “If you want an agency that has an incredible attention to detail, we’re the agency for you” and then send a proposal filled with typos, your Answer is lost. If, on the other hand, you send an impeccable proposal document, then it’s easily imputed.
Building imputed value: Lots of little things
There are lots of little things, and some big ones, make an imputed Answer. Here are the ones I find are the most powerful done right, and worst when done wrong:
1: Change your frame of mind
The proposal you’re writing isn’t just about the text. It’s about imagery, typography and layout, too. Vomiting a bunch of words onto a page and e-mailing it off may be easier, but it also screams Because I Said So But if you’ve got a major potential client, or a really important project that has to get funded by your boss’s boss, you’ll have to answer the Why, and to do that, you need to go way beyond a glorified e-mail.
2: Pick your tools
I use Powerpoint or Apple Keynote to do my proposals. Other folks use Word or similar.Use what you find easiest. Clients seem to expect a slide deck, though, and I’ve found they’re a lot more comfortable with that format. Plus, I like the one-thought-per-page structure that slide software makes me use.
You may also need:
- Your favorite fonts. I love Gotham, Myriad Pro, Minion and a few others. Unless you really know what you’re doing, don’t use more than two typefaces in one proposal.
- A stock photo resource. See below for a warning about this. I like iStockPhoto.
- A creative toolset: Adobe Illustrator, or something as simple as Comic Life (I love that program) to help you create callouts and such.
- A screen capture and markup program. I use the built-in screen capture software on my trusty Macbook, plus Omnidazzle or Skitch depending on my mood.
- A dictionary. Yes. A real dictionary. For, you know, spelling and definitions and stuff.
- A simple image editor. I like Adobe Fireworks, which makes me a freak. Use Photoshop if you really want.
3: Start with the Why
Do start with your Answer: Whatever you used to fill in the blank.
Put it front and center. I like to start my proposals with something like this:
(I’ll explain the rat later on. Yes, we really do sometimes send proposals that are rodent-narrated.)
I adjust how I say it for different clients—I want them to understand it—but one way or another, the client hears that we take our work seriously.
That sets the tone for the rest of the proposal. Then I go into the standard stuff about how great we are, all our clients, etc. etc. That’s the What. It follows the Why.
4: Have a personality – writing
First and foremost: Write with personality. Write like you speak. I completely understand the fear that your tone might be off-putting. You could hide your tone behind acronyms and jargon. You could ‘speak executive.’ But can you do that for your entire relationship with the client? I doubt it. More important, will the reader even notice you among all the other jargon-ridden executive-speak proposals? Nope. This is one more instance of Because I said So.
Here’s an example I lifted from a proposal I wrote in 2002:
“Portent will conduct a three-week brand discovery, reviewing your customers, talking to your sales force and marketing team, and building a complete model for your brand…”
Does that actually say anything? Yes. It sounds like we’re going to put your company through a colonoscopy. It’s sure as heck not how I speak.
How about this, instead:
”…our team researches your target market and your online presence.”
That’s from a proposal written by Distilled. It brings tears to my eyes. So simple. And it reads so much more naturally.
It’s really hard to write just like you speak. You can use freewriting for practice. But I’ve never gotten to perfect, speech-like writing. Just aim for it. Abandon the corporate speak filter, unless that’s really how you talk in real life. I mean, someone must, right?
This may be the most important single tip in this entire post: If you can’t write like you talk, you’ll have a very hard time dealing with the ‘Why?’ and delivering your answer, because your proposal will lack authenticity. You’ll sound like another sales guy cranking out proposals. That’s not how you set yourself apart.
Also, check out Writing with Style by John Trimble. It’s filled with great tips for finding your natural writing voice.
5: Have a personality – imagery
A picture really is worth a thousand words. Check out how Distilled impressed Hipmonk:
They even got a puppy in there! While I’m not sure ‘cool’ is quite the right word (guys – you’re imitating a flying cartoon chipmunk), this image totally underlines Distilled’s Answer: “If you like to work with smart, creative people with a sense of humor who really love your brand, we’re the agency for you.”
Here’s how we do it at Portent. Our CCO long lacked a photo. I had some fun with it:
You don’t have to be funny, or silly. It just fits my particular personality and tone, so we run with it. Use what fits your approach.
6: Get to the point
Regardless of your audience, they’re short on time. Get to the point by:
- Writing in active voice. Joe [verbed] the [noun]. Not The [noun] was [verbed] by Joe. And keep your dirty thoughts to yourself, thank you very much.
- Avoiding word pads. The phrases you used to make your 240-word essay 300 words. Don’t use “went into” if “entered” will do. There are some great ones in the EU Internet Handbook
- Avoiding empty phrases, aka ‘weasel words’. “A number of” is really just “many”, yes? You can get a decent list of empty phrases here, here and here.
- Dumping the jargon. Try to avoid stuff like ‘ontology’ and ‘information retrieval’. It makes your audience’s eyes roll back in their head. Just a tip. Not that I’ve ever done that. Cough.
- Clearly, some words are just worthless. Or should I say: Some words are worthless. See what I did there?
Unless you want to answer “Why should I hire you?” with “Because we’re really hard to understand and you’ll hate talking to us!” I recommend that you get to the point.
Again, I recommend reading John Trimble’s book, Writing with Style. And practicing a lot.
7: Illustrate whenever possible
Which would you rather see?
The second one’s no work of art, but it’s a lot easier on the eyes, and it illustrates the point. You don’t even have to read the text if you don’t want to. The message is clear: We create reports that aren’t yanked out of Google Analytics.
Here’s how we talk about our process:
That’s 5 or 6 pages worth of information, packaged up in a nice, easy-to-digest graphic.
Whenever possible, illustrate. Human beings process images more easily than words, no matter how nerdy we are. And, illustrations are a huge opportunity to strengthen your imputed Answer.
8: Avoid an assault
If you pour thousands of words into an endless document without a break, your reader’s going to cry surrender and head for the bid page again. You’re not connecting with them. You’re just bullying them with Because I Said So.
I like to use a large, readable font with wide line spacing, and minimal words per page:
Yes, that means more pages, but most folks will read these on-screen. So more pages > more words per page.
Try to use images, good typography and a little forethought to avoid a proposal that makes the reader’s eyes bleed. That’s never a good way to introduce yourself.
9: Make eye contact
When you use images with people or animals, use ones that look at the reader or at the subject of the page:
Doesn’t that little guy tug at your heart strings?
When you write, make eye contact. Use ‘you’ not ‘the client’. And use ‘us’ instead of ‘you and whatever firm you work with’. It’s better for brevity and it tells me you’re speaking to me. It makes your proposal feel less like a template.
10: Choose stock photos wisely
Unless there’s a really good explanation, this image is pretty off-putting:
Sorry, but it’s just really hard to figure out how two snails making baby snails (or something) helps get any positive message across. Unless your proposal addresses a snail farm…?
Imagine reading through a proposal and happening on this little gem:
If you’re using stock photos, choose carefully. Go with images that fit your Answer. Or at least images that don’t pick up your Answer, shred it, stomp on it, then dump it in a garbage disposal.
11: Don’t use bare stock photos
I got a proposal a week ago that had this image on the cover:
My god, I thought. Look at all these happy attractive people. This company must really have their poo together. I guess we’ll be their token ugly client.
Then I did a quick reverse image search:
Nothing says ‘I’m a tool’ like a slapped-together proposal bookended by stock photos you’re passing off as your team.
Don’t use bare stock photos. If you’re going to use stock images, use them as they’re meant to be used: As raw material for something else.
Unless, of course, you want your Answer to be “If you want to work with a company that hasn’t had an original idea since we opened, we’re the agency for you.”
12: Use data sparingly (and well)
Don’t bury your reader in data. I once sent a potential client a 45-page proposal that included a complete review of their online revenue sources, one by one. I also sent someone this gem:
Painful. I can practically hear them: “OH GOD MY EYES MY EYES I CAN’T SEE WHAT HAPPENED IAN FRIED MY VISUAL BRAIN CENTERS WHAT A BUTTHEAD.” Don’t wear data like a sequined disco suit. You’re not impressing anyone. And, it’s just another way of saying Because I Said So.
Follow principles of good data presentation. Use data to support case studies, or to show opportunity:
But use it sparingly, and well. Ask yourself: Will using this data reinforce why the reader should hire us? If the data is just going to answer what you’ll do, or how you’ll do it, think twice. If it’ll answer why, as well, then use it.
13. Be consistent
If you use a program like Powerpoint to do your proposal, make sure you use a consistent layout. Don’t have page headings and images jumping around like they’re in an early-20th-century silent film. It’s not artistic. It’s just annoying.
If you’re using a word processor, make sure fonts, line spacing, etc. stay the same from page to page.
In both cases, apply formatting rules consistently. And use consistent naming conventions.
I know: “Ian, no one notices this stuff.”
True. They don’t notice it. They just find your proposal a little bit harder to read, or not quite what they wanted.
Imputed. Value. Make sure you’re consistent.
14: Think about typography
Think a lot about typography. Your proposal’s largely words. Making those words easier to read makes it a lot more inviting:
- Set leading (line spacing) so that your pages don’t look crowded. I like to use 1-to-1 line spacing in proposals: I use the same line height as my font size.
- Set paragraph spacing so there’s at least 50% more room between paragraphs as between lines.
- Pick a typeface that’s easy to read and fits your personality as a company. San-serif is very direct and no-nonsense. Serif is sophisticated and creative. That’s a huge generalization, though. Use your judgment.
- Space bullets, numbered lists, etc. so they’re readable.
- Use left-justified for left-to-right languages. Do not use full justification! It’s a pain to read.
Which would you rather read?
The first version is Powerpoint’s default settings. The second uses a wider leading and better paragraph spacing. Little things make a big difference.
For a humungous list of resources, check out Vandelay Design’s 101 Typography Resources for Web Designers. For quick overview, read The Top 10 Typography Rules
15: Use PDF!
Finally, no matter how simple your layout, no matter how ‘safe’ you think you are, send your potential client/boss the PDF (Portable Document Format) version of the proposal. If you put in tons of great work and create something like this:
But the client, or your boss, opens it and it looks like this:
…you may have lost your chance.
PDF packages up fonts, images, etc. and ensures the document will look the same to the reader as it does to you. It’d be a shame to put all that work into your proposal, only to have the whole effect ruined because the reader doesn’t have the Gotham font on their laptop…
Little things, done right
If you want to write a winning proposal, you have to address the ‘Why?’ before you do anything else. That’s how you set yourself apart. That’s how you get in the door to talk about the What and the How.
Part of this process is explicit: You need to tell the reader the answer to ‘Why should I hire you?’ or ‘Why should I approve this project?’ Talking about specific services (the how), pricing (the how) or ROI (the what) won’t work. You have to appeal at a more basic, emotional level by tying your company’s value and motivation directly to the kind of work you’ll do for the client. That’s the ‘Why?’
And, while part of answering ‘Why?’ is explicit, a lot of it’s imputed. You reinforce your message by handling all the details, from typography to imagery to writing style. As Renny Gleeson says, little things, done right, matter.
And, I’d suggest that this is about a lot more than proposals. This is about your next report; your meeting w/ your boss; great outreach. Know why you do it. Make it work through ‘how’ you do it.
Oh, and here are the slides from the presentation:
CEO & Founder
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More