Exciting course announcements! Wildlife Survey Field Methods: Ungulates is now open for registrations. Limited Seats Remaining! Register here! Amazon Associates – Registration is now open! Register here. Let’s get social, join our NRTG Student Facebook group here.

Tips for better proposals

Mid-winter. A time of thinking about summer work, planning, designing, scoping… And also writing those pesky proposals that drive the work we do. Having written a few proposals in my time as well as sitting on the other side of the desk and receiving proposals for work, I would like to distill a few, to my mind, core concepts here.

First, a proposal, like a resume when you are looking for work, is the most important piece of writing you can do. You will never write for a more critical audience — money is involved so everything is read with a demanding eye. Because of this the text has to represent your best writing; if the client finds errors he will doubt your abilities. The reader is judging your competence to do any work solely on how well you craft a compelling proposal. That is a tremendous amount of weight to put on any writer’s shoulders. The edge though you have when writing a proposal? Your reader is inherently deeply interested. To be effective, hold that interest.

As the writer you should be able to explain why every single component is in the document as it is. This means when I ask you “why did you include that?”, your response is more than “the template requires it.” You need to be able to articulate why every item is included — why that figure, what are you trying to show with that photo, what is the point of that table, why is the text presented as it is? How do these elements work to persuade the reader of what you want? Everything in a proposal must have a strategic purpose; if you cannot explain that purpose take it out. For example, the title page (yes, we do judge books — and proposals — by their covers)… If you have photographs on it, why? Are they just pretty pictures? (wrong reason). Or do they convey something essential to the reader? (right reason). Our proposals are not meant to be a marketing prospectus filled with glossy images. Feel free to include images on the title page, just be sure you have a persuasive purpose for putting them there. When we discuss this in my class, students are invariably turned off by cluttered and image rich title pages, preferring basic appearances with strong informative titles.

Budgeting is always a challenge, made particularly worse when there is uncertainty such as unfinalized engineering drawings, uncertain timelines, or unknowns about activities. There are a few strategies to help deal with costing uncertainty:

  • Overestimate staff time: If you think staff will be in the field for 25 days, maybe increase the cost associated with them by 10%. Is this padding the budget? Yes, but it is for a purpose: to account for the uncertainty in the project. The key is to keep the increase to something reasonable. If it turns out you don’t need this additional time, then the client is not billed and you can come in under-budget — a rarity and one that is sure to make your client very happy.
  • Provide client with options: My solutions for a client’s problem frequently incorporate non-traditional approaches (just the kinda guy I am). If I included these as part of the direct solution, the client may see this as me being greedy and trying increase the budget for work not specifically requested. But when these are included as options, with strong justification of why I think they are important to solve the stated issue, I am giving the client freedom to choose between everything I am proposing and only the piece he thinks most appropriate. Bear in mind that he understands the problem much better and more deeply than you and has pressures you are unlikely aware of influencing his decisions. Does this work? Sometimes, not always. But I feel at the end of the day that I am providing what I truly believe to be the best solution.
  • Include a contingency category to capture unknowns: Sometimes I will just come right out and include a budget line “contingencies” and, importantly, in the text lay out the uncertainties that prevent me from forming a solid budget. The risk to this approach is that you are sending the message that despite years of experience you cannot budget accurately. If you cannot do that, the reader asks, how can I trust your ability to complete the proposed work? So this can be a useful approach, but understand it may send a detrimental message. Keep any contingency request small, less than 10% of budget.

Two other, unfortunately relatively common, budgeting techniques are worth mentioning here: “scope-changes” and “bait-and-switch”. These two approaches are fraudulent. Sorry, no other way to put it. The scope-change strategy is to purposely low-bid some work and then increase the scope and cost once you have the contract. One of my previous employers (who will go unnamed) used this strategy; I felt like a needed a shower whenever I had to be in any way connected with it. Bait-and-switch is a bit different. Using this strategy a higher credentialed and more expensive staff is included in the budget, both to look good on paper but also to expand the charged revenue, but then a junior or less-experienced person is used to complete the actual work. Again, some companies use this as a strategy — and they get work. But I am, and believe most people to be, more ethical than this. If you need more money, just ask for it. Do not use these deceitful methods.

I believe, and teach, that proposal writing is about persuasion and integrity. It is actually not about money. The solution comes first — an approach to the problem that you fully believe in — then the money comes afterward. This allows you to write from the heart and your own position of integrity. I urge you to take the long view. You will not be successful in every proposal (if you are batting more than 50% you are doing well) but you do want every single proposal to advertise that you are a person or company of integrity, honesty, and trust. That is what leads to long-term work.

NRTG offers a one-day technical writing course Technical Writing for Professionals: Proposals which delves more deeply into these concepts and ways to improve your proposals. This is best coupled with our base course Technical Writing for Professionals that explores specific techniques, approaches, strategies, and tools to create more engaging and persuasive prose. Other topic-specific courses include Technical Writing for Professionals: Report Writing; and Technical Writing for Professionals: Resumes and Cover Letters.

Sean Mitchell