How to Write Winning Business Proposals to Get the Results You Want

By Wendy Enelow, MRW, JCTC, CPRW Jan 17, 2017

​I've interacted with hundreds of HR professionals throughout my career as an executive resume writer and career consultant. With some, I've collaborated on writing business plans and proposals for a host of different initiatives: 

  • Staffing needs (within the HR organization and/or the company it serves).
  • Technology upgrades and new solutions
  • Operating and capital budget requests
  • New ventures, products, programs, projects, operations and services
  • Reorganizations (as a result of mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, etc.) 

In this article, I'm going to share six steps to follow to write winning business proposals and why each step is essential. I'll discuss the critical components of content and presentation since both topics are important.

Make Your Idea the Centerpiece

The content of your business proposal is the most important feature of the document. You have an idea, a vision, an essential need or some other driving factor for what you are proposing and why. That information is the heart of the entire proposal. 

The first step in creating the proposal is to develop a marketing mindset to promote your idea. No matter what you are proposing, you are "selling" something and, therefore, must capture the "buyer's" attention by clearly communicating why your proposal is worthy of action. 

Here are the six steps for writing a business proposal that engages readers and drives positive action: 

  1. Title your proposal with words that clearly communicate what it is. Readers should have no questions about the idea you are conveying. 

  2. Begin with a brief summary—a few short bullet points—that outline what your proposal is for and the problem it will solve, the justification for why it's needed, the requisite financial and business resources, and the projected (hopefully positive) impact on the organization. This section will allow someone to quickly learn about your proposal, so be certain that you give plenty of thought to every word you write. This is your primary opportunity to capture your reader's attention. 

  3. Write a comprehensive narrative about your proposal, focusing on the current situation, the problem or issue that you want to solve or the opportunity you want to take advantage of, and your proposed actions and recommendations.
    Note that comprehensive does not mean pages of content (as you'll read further in this article). Yes, you want to be complete, but do not overload your readers with information they don't need.
  4. Give detailed information about the impact of your proposal on the department, organization, division, company, workforce or other entity. Some of these impacts may be quantifiable (e.g., hiring more sales associates leads to increased revenues) while others may be qualitative in nature (e.g., improved HR technology resources can allow for better candidate selection). A clear outline of each impact is an essential component of your proposal and what will often be the determining factor in whether or not your proposal is approved. 

  5. Be honest about resource requirements. Just about any proposal is going to have resource requirements—money, technology or personnel. State all of your requirements as you anticipate them now so that you lessen the potential for surprises during the initiative. Rarely are surprises of that nature good. 

  6. Sell yourself. With just a short paragraph or two, or a few bullet points, be certain to tell your reader why you're the best person to launch and manage what you've proposed. It might be that your proposal is great and everyone is on board, but they select someone else to handle it. Share information about your qualifications, achievements, knowledge of the company, and connections with the company that positions you as the person to take the helm. Don't assume they know; tell them!

Keep It Succinct and Write It Tight

Whether you're writing a two-page proposal to justify a new hire or a 10-page proposal for a large investment in HRIS technology, you want to write tight, lean and clean to enhance readability. If your proposal is so dense with text and page-long paragraphs, it's difficult to read and, therefore, easy to put aside. Don't let that happen to you! 

Here are a few recommendations for how to write tight, lean and clean. Use: 

  • Short paragraphs that are no longer than three to four lines each. If longer, split into two paragraphs so that readers more easily capture the information. 
  • Short lists of bullet points with no more than four to six bullets in each section. If you have more bullet points than that, break them into multiple sections with individual headings/subheadings to give readers a visual break between each section.
  • Short content within your bullet points, working to keep each bullet to one to three lines. If the content in the bullet points is longer than that, be sure to double space between each of the bullet, again for a visual break for your readers. If it makes your proposal a page longer, let it be long and readable versus uninviting and unreadable. 

Format for Readability

These additional recommendations for formatting, layout and page design that will attract readers to your proposal and further enhance readability: 

  • Prominently display the corporate logo on the cover page/first page; then, use a smaller version of the logo on each page. Be certain to include the name of the proposal (or a shortened title) and a page number along with the logo to create a professional presentation. 
  • Enhance your headings and titles so they look great and make the proposal easy to scan. Use a larger, bold font than what you use for the text–maybe even in color as we discuss below. If sections are long, consider using an attractive line to visually separate each section. Word gives you lots of line choices, so pick something distinctive. 
  • Use color for the corporate logo and, conservatively, throughout the rest of the proposal for headings, titles, images, lines, boxes and any other graphics you might integrate. 
  • Page endings are important since you don't want a new heading and only two lines of text at the bottom of one page and the rest of that section on the next page. It doesn't look professional and interrupts the flow. If that happens, insert a hard page break so that the new section will start at the top of a new page. If all of your sections happen to be three-quarters to a full page, then you might want to consider starting each section on a new page. Otherwise, let it run as a continuous document, except in instances where hard breaks are recommended. 
  • Save your proposal as a PDF file. Even though you're most likely sending your proposals to someone in the same company with the same computer software and version of Word, you never know how pages are going to display on the recipient's end. Easy solution: Save the final file as a PDF, and then you're certain to have pages break display as you intend.  

Integrate Essential Keywords

You may be keenly aware of the importance of keywords in resumes and job search, but have you ever thought about their value to other business documents? They are powerful additions to anything and everything that you write. 

Keywords resonate important clues about specific skills, qualifications, job titles and company names. For example, whenever I read the keyword "compensation," I assume that individual has experience in salary administration, benefits, claims administration, employee rewards and bonuses, executive compensation, and maybe even expatriate affairs. 

Or, if I read "CHRO," I instantly think of strategic HR planning, recruitment, staffing, training and development, benefits and compensation, HRIS … the list goes on and on. Just look at how many things were communicated with just 4 letters: CHRO. 

Give careful thought to the importance of keywords when writing business proposals. As we've already discussed, you want to write tight, lean and clean, and communicate your messages in a manner that is easy to read, understand and clearly defines what action needs to be taken. Be certain to use relevant keywords whenever crafting a business proposal so that you can communicate a great deal of information with the right word choices. 

Wendy Enelow is a Master Resume Writer (MRW), Job and Career Transition Coach (JCTC), and Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW), working with professionals and executives worldwide for the past 30 years. She has written 20+ books on resumes, cover letters, keywords, and career management, including the recently released Modernize Your Resume: Get Noticed … Get Hired (Emerald Career Publishing, 2016) and Best Keywords for Resumes, Letters & Interviews (Impact Publications, 2003). Enelow has been interviewed by major media including The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, ABC News, Money Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and scores of others, and is the Job Front columnist for the American Legion Magazine. She is a skilled presenter and trainer before audiences nationwide. 

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