I’ve had to write up a couple of proposals for new work in the last few weeks. Here’s my quick tips for writing winning proposals.

1. Understand the Brief

Let’s start simple! Make sure you’ve read the RFP (or RFQ, or brief, or whatever they have called it), because you’re going to need to make sure you tick all the boxes. Often these are in pretty standard language and asking for standard things, but make sure you know exactly what is being asked for. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.

It could well be that there isn’t a written brief, particularly if you’re preparing a proposal for a cold or semi-warm lead. In that case, I’d strongly suggest writing a single page brief for them before you launch into the proposal. Share it with the customer, check that you have understood what they are looking for – it makes you look like you know what you are doing, and as an added bonus you get to write the brief in a way that you can write a great proposal for!

Important! You need to be 100% sure at this stage that the brief is one you can deliver against. The bid / no bid decision is perhaps the most important part of any proposal process – don’t waste everyone’s time by bidding if you aren’t sure you can deliver.

2. Now answer the brief!

This is pretty obvious, but weirdly doesn’t always happen. Make sure your proposal EXACTLY answers the brief. If you’re straying from it, even if that is adding extra value, make sure you flag this clearly and explain why you think it’s right to make that change. I like to turn the questions / aims / objectives / timeframes from the brief or RFP into answers in the proposal, so I know I’m covering everything they asked for.

For example, if a brief states that the objective of the project is to “increase visitors from natural search from 100 to 200 unique users by [date]“, somewhere in your proposal it could say something like “Our proposed approach to this is designed to give the best likelihood of doubling organic traffic (visitors from natural search) to the website by [date]. We have successfully used this approach in [project details] and have prepared the workflow and milestones that we would use to recreate that approach here… ” And so on. It’s not complicated, but if you do it well it’s easy to write a proposal that 100% meets the brief, and which to the customer will sound like you’re reading their mind. Make sure you are changing the phrasing though and including each element where it makes sense in your proposal rather than exactly as they have it in the brief, otherwise they will see what you’ve done!

3. Make sure the focus is on the customer

If I was only giving 1 tip, this would be it. If the first ten pages of your proposal are standard templates which explain who you are and how amazing you are, you’re losing the customer from the word go.

Check your pronouns – if it’s more ‘I / we’ than ‘you’, you might not be focused on the customer enough. Likewise count up how many times your company name is mentioned versus their company name – if it’s about the customer (and pretty much every business will say they are “customer-centric”) then just write about the bloody customer!

When you do need to write about yourself (and you will have to in order to talk about your competence to fulfil the brief, and the advantage you have over competitors), make sure you link it back to the customer.

4. Write, Test and Rewrite

Simple one here – don’t submit until at least v.3. There are always improvements. If you think you’ve got it perfect first time, email it to me and I’ll tear it to pieces for you. Ideally get someone else in the team to check it and test your assumptions.

Focus your testing and rewrites in particular on objectives, deliverables, timescales and costs. 

5. More Time = Better Proposals

Yeah no shit! But if you don’t know what percentage of proposals you typically win, first work that out. Then allocate a value to your time. Then allocate an appropriate amount of time to the proposal. So let’s say you win 1-in-4, and you value your time at £50 per hour. If the proposal you are working on is worth £5000, and you’re prepared to allocate 10% of the value to the cost of winning it, that gives you a nominal proposal value of £500 (10 hours). Of course, you need to proportion that across the contracts you aren’t winning to, leaving you 2.5 hours to work on this one. 

(In this example, you need to prepare 4 proposals in order to be successful with 1 – spending 2.5 hours on each would give 10 hours in total, with a nominal value of £500 at £50 per hour. If the proposal you win is worth £5000, that’s a 10% cost-of-acquisition – ignoring, of course, anything you’ve had to spend to generate the opportunity to bid for the work)

Yes, I know these figures aren’t real, and in many cases there’s no actual £ cost to preparing a proposal. If these nominal calculations don’t work though, your model isn’t scalable and probably isn’t even sustainable. Make these numbers work for you.

Then, spend longer, work harder, work smarter, make sure each proposal is better than the last.  

6. Be Different

I can’t stress this enough. Something about your proposal needs to stand out. Whether it’s cost, presentation, delivery, extras, tone…or all of them! It’s unlikely yours will be the only proposal they are considering, so make sure yours stands out.

  1. Send a video instead of a written proposal
  2. If you think everyone else’s proposal is going to be 100 pages, find a way to get yours onto 2 pages.
  3. Make it too good to refuse (“If we don’t deliver as promised, we’ll not only give you your money back, we’ll give you 50% on top“)
  4. Shock them (“All of your competitors are fucking boring and lazy, and there’s a risk you’re going to be the same. Not with us“)
  5. Don’t do any of these – find your own thing.

Now, these are risky, and you need to be comfortable with that risk. Being different increases the likelihood that the reader won’t like it… but it also increases the likelihood that they will like it! It depends on your knowing your audience and finding a way to stand out in a positive way.

You know the saying “nobody got fired for buying IBM“? There is a degree of truth in that, and some customers will always be looking for the safe option. But unless you are IBM, it wouldn’t matter how safe your proposal was, you still wouldn’t win it – so on balance I think it’s always better to take the risk and try to stand out. Lots (and lots, and lots) of other people would disagree with me though. To put it another way, there’s a great bit of dialogue from Red Dwarf:

There’s an old cat saying, “It’s better to live one hour as a tiger than a whole lifetime as a worm.”


There’s an old human saying, “Who’s ever heard of a worm skin rug?”


Choose which suits you best!

7. Focus on Presentation

Sometimes that point of difference can just be visual, and often that’s a safer way of doing it. There’s some good tips on formatting and presentation over on Hubspot, and all I want to add is to remember to get make sure your proposal gets your brand across properly.

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