How to Write a Short, Effective Proposal

Weiss Advice Issue: 199, March, 2020

Consultants complain that proposals are everything from tedious to write to uncertain in their effectiveness. That’s because few people bother to understand the rationale required for a good proposal. Ignore the “contracts” that many sources espouse, because they’re so full of boiler plate language and legal trivia that they not only obscure the real issues, they also create distrust.

Here is the basis for an effective, brief proposal (I “hit” on 80% of my formally-submitted proposals):

A proposal is a SUMMATION, not an EXPLORATION. It is a written statement of the conceptual agreement already gained in prior discussions with the economic buyer. If this conceptual agreement has not been gained, a proposal is little better than a spin of the roulette wheel. This is why responding blindly to RFPs (requests for proposals) is such a waste of time in most cases.

The reason for a proposal is to allow the buyer to:

  • Reaffirm the conceptual agreement already generated.
  • Learn of the options you have to reach the objectives.
  • Learn the investment (fee) required for various value delivered.
  • Formally sign-off and launch the project.

It is not a negotiating document nor is it collaboratively done with the client.

My proposals have the following elements:

  • Situation Appraisal: A restatement of the issues involved.
  • Objectives: The results expected from the project.
  • Measures: The indicators for determining progress and success.
  • Value: The impact, preferably monetized, of meeting the objectives.
  • Timing: Start, duration, and ending dates.
  • Joint Accountabilities: What the client and I commit to do together.
  • Methodology and Options: The steps for various investment and value.
  • Terms and Conditions: Fees and payment terms for each option.
  • Acceptance: Client sign-off opportunity.

My proposals are typically two-and-a-half pages. If there is an initial payment due (there almost always is) I also enclose statements to begin the payment process, aligned with the various options provided.

I don’t enclose biographies. I don’t include any legalese about being held harmless, blameless, or anything else. In over 30 years running my own practice, I’ve never once had a legal problem, and never had a client demand such language (although occasionally they have added it, thanks to some lawyer who wandered by).

Occasionally, a client will request that you sign a contract prepared by their legal department. The good news is that the request means you’ve won the business. Have your attorney look it over, and try to eliminate statements that include the right to cancel with brief warning and no penalty. I strongly advise a “no cancellation” clause.

Proposals are not part of the sales process. They are part of the implementation process. The sale occurs before the proposal is ever written.