Over the years I've gathered some notes and reminders for myself about what makes a proposal effective, and I thought it might be useful to dump those out here. This info is mostly geared toward business proposals (pitching to a client, convincing a co-worker, justifying an expenditure, etc.) and other professional uses, but it might be useful for other scenarios too.
Before you start writing, make sure you have a plan for what you're creating:
- Approach: is a formal proposal the right approach for this task, or would the people involved benefit more from a more iterative/collaborative/informal approach?
- Audience: who are you writing the proposal for? What do they already know about the topic? Are they already "on your side" and just need some details worked out, or are you persuading them to change their minds? What other audiences might also see the proposal?
- Goals: the primary purpose of a proposal is to get your audience's approval. Are you clear on what you're trying to get approval for?
- Scope: what does your audience need to hear to give their approval? What kinds of information do they NOT need to hear? What will their reaction be?
A good proposal will probably have some or all of these components:
- An executive summary that includes a clearly stated purpose of the proposal and a summary of what's being proposed
- Appropriately concise definition of the problem space or issue the proposal is addressing or solving
- Background information relevant to the proposal
- A comprehensive explanation of the proposed action or solution
- Consideration of alternative solutions, and persuasive arguments for why your solution is the best of the available solutions
- Information about the resources required to implement the proposal, especially people time and financial costs
- A list of issues and questions that still need to be addressed to finalize the proposal (ideally, few or none of these should remain after your work)
Proposals could also include:
- Answers to specific anticipated questions or concerns your audience might raise
- A suggested schedule for implementation
- A breakdown of the roles that various people would play in implementing the proposal
- Ways to measure the success of the proposal implementation
- Information that reinforces the qualifications or credibility of you or others involved in implementing the proposal
An effective business proposal is a document that:
- Has an attractive presentation, e.g. letterhead with a clear title, byline, page numbers, etc.
- Uses short sentences that are clear and to the point, without unnecessary words
- Uses language that's appropriate to and understandable by the audience
- Includes thorough research with examples, data, facts and supporting resources that are emphasized over any opinions
- Has been proofread by you and possibly edited by a colleague, before delivery or presentation to your audience
The way you present your proposal will depend on your audience.
- Consider having a peer or even a target audience member review a draft of your proposal well before you present it.
- Delivery of a written proposal can be effective when there's lots of information for the audience to take in, or when it's helpful to give them time to absorb your proposal before it is discussed together
- Verbal delivery of a proposal can be effective when your own interest and passion for the proposal is important to convey, or when there are many supporting visual elements that need to be displayed. This can also be useful when you need to get immediate feedback (verbal or just body language) from your audience
Make effective use of your audience's time by understanding what presentation method would be most useful to them, and don't duplicate your presentation methods (e.g. don't e-mail out your proposal and then take an hour to read it to them in person).
Those are my notes on creating effective proposals. What's worked well for you?