4 tips for effective proposal writing in the digital age

4 tips for effective proposal writing in the digital ageA 2015 Microsoft study found that digital distractions have resulted in the average person having an 8-second attention span—less than a goldfish! A 2016 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article stated that bad writing is the biggest productivity buster. Yet, we still write proposals the old-fashioned way, as if proposal evaluators have unlimited time and focus.

Modernize your proposals to win in the digital age by learning from digital marketers. Here are four tips to grab the evaluator’s (short) attention with winning content.

  1. Calls to action

Calls to Action or CTAs tell the reader what to do next. An effective CTA puts the right message in front of the right people at the right time. We see these techniques every day online when we read call now, find out more, or visit a store today. Of course, every CTA must have an associated benefit, such as savings or access to a limited product.

Experienced proposal professionals know that customers buy benefits not features. The benefits must be something the customer values, and they must be time sensitive. For example, if we state that a benefit of our approach is that it reduces cost by 20%, we must be sure of two things: that cost is important to the customer, and that we specify within what timeframe this will occur.

Adding CTAs in a proposal means not letting the evaluator infer ANYTHING. State clearly what benefit the customer will receive and when. If you are proposing a feature with benefits that exceed requirements (in the Federal Government world, exceeding requirements may be scored as a Strength), then state this fact clearly so the evaluator knows what action to take, e.g., giving you a higher score.

Avoid CTAs that are either too weak or too strong. One of the most common (and worst) proposal mistakes is to assume evaluators know what to do, and thus forget the CTA. Conversely, evaluators may perceive a CTA that is too strong as high pressure or even unprofessional, such as stating, “Pick us or this project will fail!”

  1. Exceeding expectations

Evaluators are humans, and humans are programmed to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition gives us the ability to quickly make decisions about the present and the future. In behavioral psychology, this trait is referred to as heuristic problem solving. Regarding proposals, the reader expects to be…well…bored. If you can exceed expectations by breaking out of the usual pattern of stating the obvious, then the reader will pay attention.


Company ABC is pleased to submit this proposal. We were founded in 1892 and have continued to excel as world class leaders in dry cleaning and wrinkle removal for uniforms. The proposal that follows gives excruciating details on why to pick us.


Customer XYZ needs a solution to the pressing problem of wrinkled clothing. Company ABC solves this problem with a new technology that prevents wrinkles before they happen and saves on average 25% in dry cleaning costs as evidenced across 1 million satisfied customers.

Younger evaluators are bored even more easily. In an age of digital distraction, they skim, and they want the proposal to get to the point quickly. Again, make sure you state the conclusion right away, backed up with supporting detail for those who want to do more than skim.

  1. Attention grabbers

Attention grabbers are a technique related to exceeding expectations. They break the usual pattern by illustrating your understanding of the customer in an unusual way—a unique definition, a little-known fact, a surprising quote, a statement intended to challenge, a relatable anecdote, a penetrating question. Look for ways to highlight important content in an unusual format.

In addition, since younger evaluators are even more likely to make snap impression, remember that heuristics—the look and feel of the proposal—are very important. According to Millennial Marketing, Millennials will actually reject quality content if the visual effect is poor. Cluttered, unappealing proposals may be perceived as unreliable, unprofessional, and unintelligent. In addition, evaluators make first impressions even more quickly in the digital age, perhaps in a fraction of a second.

  1. Clearly relevant writing

Writing clearly and concisely is not enough. It must be clearly relevant. Avoid background details that aren’t relevant and/or dilute your message. I review hundreds of proposals and see so much fluff, passive voice, and crutch words.

The HBR study surveyed 547 business people who reported that they spend an average of 25.5 hours per week reading for work. 81% of them agreed that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. They stated that what they read is “frequently ineffective because it’s too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.”

The resulting impacts on productivity are threefold:

  • The author must rewrite the material, thus wasting time, and/or
  • The reader misunderstands the content and takes inappropriate action, and/or
  • The reader’s trust in the writer diminishes because they judge them as unprofessional, careless, or sloppy.

Keeping your proposals concise by focusing on what is relevant to the evaluator (time-sensitive benefits that they value) will result in higher scores.

To learn more about effective proposal writing in the era of the 8-second attention span, join me at the 2017 Southern Proposal Accents Conference (SPAC) in Atlanta, GA on March 23.

by Lisa Pafe, APMP-NCA President, CPP APMP Fellow, and PMI PMP

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