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Executive communication expert Dianna Booher discusses the common mistakes that proposal writers make

A new year means new budgets for your clients and prospects and new opportunities to propose your services and products.

 You may find yourself offering a proposal in one of two situations:  1) You send an unsolicited proposal to persuade the reader he or she needs your product or service; or 2) The reader is aware of a need, but you must persuade him or her that you’re the best source for the solution to meet the need.  Your proposal may take the form of a single-page sales letter, a formal 2,000-page document, or an email with only price quotations and specs.

 Proposal types vary by industry, of course.  But they have these things in common—rejection for 6 simple reasons:

 No Strategy

The most important feature of your proposal should be your theme or strategy. Why should the bidder select your organization over all the rest? Do you have the best design? Do you have the most thoroughly trained technicians? Do you have the most up-to-date equipment or information? Can you do the project most inexpensively? Can you do it more quickly than the competition? Give your reader one or two basic overriding themes to capsule your capabilities. Develop this theme throughout the document or presentation. Avoid saying simply, “Well, so can we!”

Carelessness About Apples-to-Oranges Comparisons

Help your reader remember the key points when comparing your offer to the offers of your competitors. Clearly identify the important issues and then point out how you can address each. Force the reader to evaluate the competition with regard to your issues.

Failure to Show Adequate Understanding of the Problem

Some proposers have all the answers before they hear the questions. A necessary part of your job is to communicate a full understanding of the problem or objective so that your buyer will be convinced your solution is the appropriate one.

Answers to the Wrong Problems

Propose to do what the prospective buyer wants. Notice that we didn’t say you should necessarily propose to do what the buyer says he or she wants¾make sure you investigate those stated needs or wants to clarify the criteria and discrepancies. Trying to discover the real needs is especially important if you’re providing products or services that the prospective client may not understand as fully as you do.


Proposal writers or sales presenters often fear that they will give away too much information in outlining their approaches and solutions to problems. There is, of course, always the danger of having a prospective buyer read your proposal and attempt to implement your solution without your help. But the bigger fear should be of giving so little detail that the buyer doesn’t think you know how to do the job.

 One often vague section in proposals is the list of references. Name contacts and provide email addresses and phone numbers.

 Closely related to vagueness about references is evasiveness about the background and experience of the proposed project staff: “have graduate degrees in related areas,” “has had ten years’ experience in the industry,” “has handled similar projects both nationally and internationally.” Readers often interpret such comments thus: “Nothing to brag about, huh?”

Extravagant Claims

Readers raise eyebrows when organizations claim to have expertise in everything but the treatment of ingrown toenails. Be wary of hyperbolic language—phrases such as “the most extensive,” “the most authoritative,” “unequaled,” “the undisputed leader.” Tone claims down to the point at which you can support them with facts. Include published books and articles, survey results, test data, testimonial letters, or sample products. Overstatement begs readers to be skeptical.

Now go polish that next proposal. Make 2013 your year.  What services are you offering in your next proposal?

2 thoughts on “Writing Skills: 6 Common Mistakes Proposal Writers Make”

  1. I've written large project proposals for years, Dianna, most recently related to international petroleum and power generation projects. I had never identified these 6 weak spots per se, but realize how they've always been part of a 'no-no' list as I've developed my proposals. Fascinating!

    1. Congratulations, Sharon, on being “tagged” as the proposal writer. Organizations typically tap their strongest writers for such projects because they bring the big bucks to the bottom line! Obviously, your realizing these mistakes were on the “no-no” list has made you successful. Unfortunately, in our proposal writing workshops, we see these mistakes routinely.

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