Writing Proposals – avoiding common pitfalls

Every advisory business has to write proposals at some point in order to persuade clients to buy from them. Proposal writing is both an art and a science. It’s easy to follow a simple formula for the headings, sub headings and how the argument to persuade the prospect to buy from you. But this is often spoiled by poor use of English. Additionally, the ‘art’ part of the written document is to include subtle sales messages to reinforce the view that you are the best possible supplier for this job.

I have just finished working with a client on how they can improve some aspects of their proposal writing: Here is a list of general points relating to proposal documents that you may find useful.

1. Avoid jargon and catch phrases. E.g. “something this business must turn around”…. literally this means nothing because a business can’t turn round. And “From the ground up”. And “We have been through the current website”. Have you? Or do you mean “We have reviewed the current website”? Check what you are writing isn’t ludicrous when taken literally. (A classic from a chartered surveyor client “The client cannot move premises because they are locked into their current office.” What he meant was that they had a lease commitment that they could not break which acted like a lock-in! But it made me laugh.

2. Americanisms are unnecessary in the UK. [I particularly hate their ability to turn nouns into verbs e.g. to schedule a date – urgh!]. Microsoft defaults to American English. Change your set-up. And beware Powerpoint’s spell checker. In early versions it was not possible to turn on a UK English dictionary. Rationalize, reorganize, utilize are all words that are frequently used. BUT, if the client is American, it may be appropriate to customize the document to their language expectations. Labor and Harbor are other common words.

3.  Phrases such as “We would…” and “We can….” sound conditional.  It is rather better if you want to appear like a larger business to say “My Company will”, “My Company recommends….”. Treat the company as a SINGULAR not a plural entity. Imagine there is a man called My Company as you proof read text and that you are describing what he does. Similarly the client is also singular. “Shell wants a campaign” not “Shell want a campaign”.

4. A word on apostrophes. These are for possessive nouns (Rebecca’s book) and not for plurals (user’s, PDF’s). Beware using when talking about decades: 30s and 40s these do not have apostrophes. An easy check is to write the number out as a word – thirties has no apostrophe and so the numeral won’t either.

5. Short sentences have greater impact.

6. Capital letters for proper nouns. E.g. the Government (but better still, specify which country’s Government)

7. Try to avoid words like ‘etc’ and ‘and so on’. Either complete the list of things you are using as an exemplar or finish off the sentence properly. E.g. “We will visit the marketing department, sales team, admin support desk, Chairman’s office etc” and replace it with “ we will visit the marketing department, sales team, admin support desk and all the other departments who will use the website.” Or just write out the full list of departments you will visit.

8. Positive sounding language. This is a personal sales tip that I’ve used time and again. Write the proposal as if the client has already agreed to work with you. Replace “we would do…..” to “we will….” and it all sounds so much more confident.

9. ‘Name drop’ your clients’ names into the text to prove your experience.

10. Create a “Reasons for working with My Company” section. Set out clearly what you can offer that will give the prospective client reassurance and confidence in order to buy from you.

11. And a thought on a possible additional section entitled “How we judge success” or “How you will know that the job has been successful”. I find that most clients who buy in expert services are doing so because they are less expert than you in your area of specialism. This means that they may be less able to judge the importance of your listed suggestions. Therefore making it easy for them to understand a new concept and what it does and how they can justify buying it in an un-patronising way is a particular knack that the best proposals do well.

12. Making a strong point and emphasising possible pitfalls is also important because it demonstrates your expertise. Take the sentence “It is also important to maintain standards such as usability and accessibility which can be corrupted as a website grows”. Do you think the pitfall of those standards slipping is better presented in this re-working? “It is also important to maintain standards such as usability and accessibility because these risk becoming corrupted as a website grows.”

And, to end, I suggest you take two proposals your company wrote a year ago and re-read them carefully.  How well did you do?

(Did you spot my spelling in point 2 about Americanisms?)

Golden Questions

A “Golden Question” is one in which the answer tells you more than the question itself would imply.

Useful for research, discovery and us biz dev types who need to quickly assess new prospects and whether they will buy from us.

I learnt about it from Don Peppers who integrated it into his CRM method (Identify:Differentiate:Interact and learn: Customise).  His classic was to find out whether a customer had a high propensity to buy premium brand pet food.  The question was “Do you buy your pet a christmas present?”.  Neat, isn’t it?  Those who do, are more likely to lavish spend on their animals than those who don’t.  Simple.
And so how have I used it with my clients?  They are mainly working in B2B areas and so the question set needs revising depending on your particular positioning and needs.

#1 Digital Agency selling high end technology back-end services

Julian wanted to be able to find out whether a prospect wanted a simple web site or one with higher functionality.  Working with him, I developed two questions to help him quickly filter people:

Question 1: What was the date of your first website?

Question 2: How many times since then have you re-launched or substantially revised it?

Why does this work? With the first quesiton, he can tell if your company is an early adopter or late arrival for the new web technologies.   And with the second, he can assess your likely sophistication as a web user for marketing.  Each time you re-launch a website the functionality is improved. Relaunching every 2 years means you are more likley to be interested in moving to leading edge features.

So, how does your company stack up against his questions?

#2 Agency working with start-up web businesses

These lads want to be able to find out how far down the road you are to getting your website functional.  THey also need to find out the degree of technological sophistication of the person they are talking to.  Pitching yourself too “techy” and you’ll quickly lose the interest of a punter but being too simplistic has the same effect.  Similarly their services vary depending on the stage of the business and how close to launch the start-up business is.

Question 1: Have you got your requirements document written?

Question 2: Are you happy with your user numbers?

The first establishes business stage and sophistication and the second devines the success of the marketing support put into an already functioning site.

Now what golden questions are right for your business?  Can you use them to shorten your prospecting time frame and more quickly find prospects who have the potential to become customers?

Guest Post: How to Create a Powerful Sales Presentation – Chris Gallagher

As a business development agency with an involvement in the entire sales process, we help our clients to influence the brands we’ve created opportunities to pitch to.

This article of insightful tips helps you to structure a professional and powerful sales presentation so that you can pitch your agency with conviction, confidence, and clarity.

Tip 1: Define the objective of your presentation

Are you looking to persuade (e.g. sales meeting), inspire people into action (e.g. budget decision makers) or educate (e.g. brands will want to know you understand their industry and target audience therefore new interesting insights will add credibility to your presentation). In a pitch or sales meeting situation, you will be looking to do all the above. The presentation content should then reflect your objectives, which can be measured quantitatively or qualitatively.

Examples of measurements are:

Sales: Did you win the project or progress to the next stage?

Inspirational: When questioned, do the decision makers commit to both the principle and action associated with your presentation topic?

Educate: Did your insights create further discussions?

Tip 2: Understand your audience and venue

Sometimes the presentation title defines the audience.  Sometimes it’s the audience who define the title.

Things to consider on your audience are:

* Who are the people attending your presentation (marketing, finance, procurement)?

* How many will there be, and from what backgrounds?

* How will your audience be dressed, and expect you to dress (ideally the presenter should be aligned in appearance to the audience. In large corporations, shirt and tie is expected. In Marketing Communications, if you are targeting other agencies i.e. white labelling work, it’s more likely to be smart casual. Pitching this wrong can create a barrier to building rapport with your audience.

In terms of venue:

* The size of venue needs to be appropriate to the number of expected attendees.

* Ensure that you know exactly what technology is available to you and take what you need to with you. Even where the venue supplies this, always have a back-up plan. A decade ago this meant having printed copies for all your audience. Now it’s more likely to be a laptop and USB to store your presentation content

Tip 3: Using PowerPoint or video presentations

Using a poorly prepared and visually unattractive presentation can decrease the overall value of your content, as well as the perception of its delivery.

A few simple rules to avoid this happening are:

  • Make the presentation visually interesting. In an ideal world, video should be used, but this can be impractical if you need to edit your presentations frequently (e.g. sales), where PowerPoint will suffice. That said, you can easily embed a mini-video presentation within an otherwise editable presentation. This can be driven by some small headers on the front page of a presentation, alongside your company logo (typical headings for a sales presentation can be “testimonials”, “financials”, and “proposal”)
  • Do not overuse words and bullets. The rule of thumb here is that if I can present or read the content of your presentation without you being there, then it is a poor presentation. Only rely on key phrases or topic headers. Additionally, a thirty slide PowerPoint with nothing but bullets on it will bore your audience to sleep. Imbed “interest peaks” into your presentation (see below).
  • Do not under use or over use animation. Often people feel the need to overuse animation, which can become distracting and over the top. Equally, dropping an entire slide into view means that the audience will inevitably read ahead of where you want them to be. Bring each salient point in as required.
  • Make sure that you know in advance how much time you will have and plan your presentation accordingly. In sales presentations, if the client reduces the time you have to pitch, do not rush through a one-hour presentation in fifteen minutes. Discuss the most salient points or re-appoint to another time.

Tip 4: Create “interest peaks”

A standard presentation is 40 minutes in length. In this time, your audience will be at their most attentive in the first 10-12 minutes, and the last 5. This is because people “drift off” during presentations that are heavy in content, visually dull, or poorly presented. To counter this it is important to continually keep your audiences attention by offering new, interesting stimuli in terms of content and delivery.

Good methods of achieving this are:

  • Anecdote – People like to hear a good, relevant story.
  • Quotes – It is common to open and close presentations with quotes, which make an important point related to the presentation title, or to inject some humour.
  • Jokes – On that very subject, jokes can keep audience energy high, but only if they are tactful, relevant to the presentation, and funny.  Do not stop and wait for rapturous applause, because if it isn’t forthcoming you will look very silly indeed.
  • Video or film – Changing the media you use will inevitable re-engage those lost during the presentation.
  • Using different presenters – A single person for a long period can become dull. If it is realistic, and assuming both are good presenters in their own right, this can help to keep a longer session more engaging.
  • Activities – It is said, “you remember 10% of what you hear, up to 80% of what you hear, see and actually experience yourself”. Where possible get your audience involved in appropriate activities.

Tip 5: Body language

The key mistakes made by inexperienced presenters are:

  • Shuffling from side to side
  • Playing with pens, watches, or anything you’re holding
  • Staring at a single point or at the back of the room. Equally it’s poor etiquette to look at the screen whilst presenting. You should know the content, and even if you do not, use confidence cards for guidance. Remember YOU are your best visual aid in making presentations interesting.

Chris Gallagher is the Strategic Development Director for UpFront Business Development

Business Development Methodology

I frequently work with clients on their biz dev – as a means of growing a business it is without compare IMHO.

I know my methods and there is a reasonably straightforward base template of activities and actions which then get customised for each situation (depending on experience, cash, skills and time available).

Two of my clients, Wave Creative Communications and Gabrielle Shaw Communications have kick-started their biz dev in the past couple of months.  And, despite knowing that the base methodology is sound, it is still really gratifying when it WORKS – and when it works fast.

Wave chose to use external resource for appointment setting and after three weeks have two live opportunities and eight future opportunities logged for the next 6-8 months.

GSC are doing it all internally and in the month of July have WON four new pieces of business – three in one week.  What was particularly encouraging was that we worked hard at pricing the work accruately and sending the right team to pitch and for one client we sent a more junior team to reflect the value of the opportunity and they won it without senior help.  That bodes really well for creating a culture of new business through the whole organisation.

I am so proud of them.

Here’s the base methodology

  1. Identify your target sectors and named organisations and research
  2. Add to your database
  3. Decide how you will go after them and set up the process
  4. Have support documentation / literature / credentials / website / direct mail ready
  5. Contact by mail / email / voice and record your conversation
  6. Do what you promise to do (send stuff, email, call again)
  7. Flag future contact dates and have a process to ensure this happens

It isn’t hard to understand.  But what Creative Agencies frequently find is that it is very hard to do consistently when client pressures rise.  What I do is to help set up the underlying process to ensure it happens regardless of other things….. Sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes I am less successful.

If you want a “healthcheck” for your own processes – call.