Do You Make Any of these 7 Deadly Proposal Writing Mistakes?

For many of us, proposal writing is often more black art than science. Many professionals  I talk to admit to losing more sleep over proposal writing than most other facets of their business. But it doesn’t have to be that way… Here are seven deadly deal busters including the most lethal one of all. Avoiding them will help your cash register ring more often!

1.    Forgetting to clearly highlight the benefits that you will provide. In other words… How will the client’s condition improve if they engage your services? The answer to this question must be specific and compelling. In my experience, there are really only two basic motivators for any business person… the prospect of gain or the fear of loss. In other words, they either want more of something… sales, profits, personal fulfillment, donations, a better package design… or less of something like accidents, waste, stress, expenses, taxes, lawsuits or turnover. Make sure the prospective client understands exactly what to expect when working with you. While it can be productive to detail deliverables, simply proposing to monitor, review, write a report or facilitate something doesn’t show a benefit, it only describes the way you will approach the engagement. Good proposals are as specific as possible in terms of stated numbers, percentages and results to be achieved.

2.    Failure to provide proof of claim. References must not be an afterthought relegated to the last page of a proposal. They belong on or near the first page… right after the benefit statements. Provide compelling proof of your claims by offering more than a simple list of names. Add a sentence or two about why a particular reference might be helpful to the prospect. Something like… “We were able to reduce casting waste for Johnny Doe at the ABC Metals ( by 13% within the first 45 days, saving them a significant amount of money annually.” (Of course, seek the approval of the exact wording from the past client in advance.) Don’t have any such references yet? Volunteer to help a non-profit for a while or cite previous job experience. Good proposals specifically communicate the value that you create for your clients and prove why YOU are the person for the particular engagement.

3.    Lack of a clear definition of scope. The scope defines the exact nature and amount of work to be done during the engagement. But, perhaps even more importantly, what is not included in the deal. If you write separate contracts for your engagements in addition to your proposals… also, include the scope of work in the proposal. Clients don’t like surprises! Ad-libbing on this is for amateurs. Detailing a clearly defined scope demonstrates that you are experienced and professional. If there is confusion about what you will and will not provide at the proposal stage, it can become a major issue on the back end that I guarantee will come back to bite you. Good proposals establish business boundaries that help ensure your profitability.

4.    Presenting lengthy and unfocused proposals. Keep your proposals simple and save the detail for the attachments. Long proposals don’t get read in most cases. So keep it short… no more than two or three pages. When proposals get too long, they become a barrier to decision making because now the client feels compelled to read it to be sure that they don’t miss something important. If you can’t say it in 3 pages, you are probably saying too much. Consider using newspaper story elements… Who, What, Where, and Why (Skip the How and see number 7 below.) If your service is complicated or if non-performance by the client presents a serious financial risk to you, then sufficient detail belongs in a professionally reviewed contract. Good proposals are like an executive summary of the proposed engagement that focuses on the benefits the prospect will receive.

5.    Using weak language. Using squishy words like maybe, probably, could, may, try, might, perhaps and sometimes do not project competence and resolve, but weakness and evasion. More persuasive proposals employ power words like accelerating, implement, overcome, change, solutions, objectives, recommendation, benefit, gain, fix, transform and innovate. An online search of such powerful words will produce a bounty of options for you. One word you must purge from your proposals is the word “I”. No one wants to read about you. They are interested in themselves and their organization and what you can or cannot do for them. Instead, use the words “you” or “your company” …meaning the prospect’s firm… liberally. Good proposals project quiet competence and genuine self-confidence.

6.    Offering only a single option for the client to accept or reject. Avoid giving the prospect a simple yes or no decision. Provide two or even three options for the client based on the proposed scope of work. This has the effect of providing up to three separate price points. These options allow the client to start small or go all in. Three options are the very most you should provide… any more than that and it can overwhelm the prospect. Top decision makers prefer to choose what to buy as opposed to being “sold” a particular program. Good proposals give both you and the prospect a specific fallback position.

7.    Describing HOW the work is to be done rather than WHAT is to be done. This is the deadliest of proposal mistakes. Some professionals attempt to demonstrate their competence by revealing exactly how they would solve the problem in the proposal itself. Once you reveal that … why on earth should they hire you? There are unscrupulous companies that interview a number of providers in an attempt to actually generate proposals like this. They will ask that your proposal is quite specific on how you would go about dealing with their exact issues. They are trying to get free services. If you receive this type of request… run to the nearest exit! Good proposals focus on the value you provide and the benefits the client will receive by engaging your services.

Jim McCraigh helps his clients build profitable, growing and sustainable business. He is on a mission to help you sell more of your professional services! He has been the owner of Business Growth Strategies, a professional services firm, since 1987