How to write winning proposals

Rob Ashton explains how developing your writing skills can help you to win sales.

Whether you love them or hate them, you can’t deny that reality TV shows such as The X-Factor provide contestants with honest feedback about their performances. After the tone-deaf wannabes are swiftly weeded out, the ones with raw talent are prodded and guided by Simon et al before being transformed into marketable acts.

But when it comes to your sales proposals, the only critics you have are your prospects. There’s usually no training ground before you’re let loose on your public. So if they like what you have to offer, the chances are you’ll get a sale. If they’re uncertain, they may well give you little idea of where you went right or wrong.

Imagine that you meet a client and build a good relationship before promising to email over a proposal later in the week. But by the time it comes to putting pen to paper, you’ve forgotten the conversation and struggle to get back into the groove. Instead, you simply send out a standard proposal that leaves the prospect cold and you without a sale. In this case, the client gives some helpful feedback, but it skirts around the real issue. You don’t get the witty one liner that says: ‘great in person, but sounded like a robot on paper’.

Most salespeople haven’t been taught how to develop a fresh, personable writing style. But proficient sales writing is a skill that can be learnt. And once you have, your proposals can act as a ‘silent sales force’ that is out there winning business for you while you’re busy pursuing other opportunities.

So, become your own judge by learning and applying some simple tips and techniques to your written work.

Switch off your computer

We tend to live in the virtual world of our computer screens. But at the beginning of the writing process, it’s helpful to get away from the screen and use a pencil and paper to gather your thoughts.

So before you type a word, ask yourself the following six questions:

  • What is the proposal about?
  • Who will read it?
  • How much do they already know about the subject?
  • What do they absolutely need to know?
  • How important is the subject to them?
  • How interested are they in the subject (which is not necessarily the same thing)?

Doing this allows you to home in on the main ideas and messages you want to communicate. Keep asking yourself: What do you really want to say? Then jot down all the ideas that are essential and important to your proposal.

Build a persuasive structure

Next, focus your proposal by using the Four Ps technique, which stands for: position (where they are now), problem (why they can’t stay there), possibilities (where they could go) and proposal (where they should go). This approach turns conventional wisdom on its head and is surprisingly effective. It allows you to begin with the client’s situation and needs, and to recommend solutions, while building your credibility in the process. Only then do you write about your pedigree – by which point you’ll just be confirming what they’ve already concluded.

Get personal

One of the best ways to show your personality through writing is to use words such as ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’. These words help to connect you to your readers. Similarly choose the active voice to make your sentences livelier. For instance, you can write ‘I [or we] guarantee that you’ll notice a difference in three days,’ rather than ‘a difference has been guaranteed within three days.’

Short and sweet

Finally, no-one wants to wade through the sales equivalent of War and Peace. Keep sentences to a maximum of 15-20 words and edit ruthlessly until you have a compelling document that begs to be read.

Mastering these skills will help you to tailor your writing so that it meets the needs of each particular client. Don’t worry if you don’t hit gold on your first go. For every one-hit wonder in the record business, there are those who’ve created a long, successful career by making constant adjustments to their performance, until they develop that certain something that sets them apart from the rest.

For proposal-writing training, see our course for teams and our course for individuals.

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams