The real reasons technical proposals flop
Most technical proposals don’t flop because they’re not precise enough about technical matters. They fail because the writers self-sabotage by focusing on themselves rather than on their readers.
Here are eight common pitfalls to avoid the next time you write a proposal:
1. Showing off your enthusiasm
The pitfall: You write at length about how pleased, honoured, thrilled, excited, and so on you are to have the opportunity to submit a proposal for such an awesome opportunity.
Why it’s damaging: Potential clients don’t want to hear about your feelings; they want you to thrill them with a solution that suits their specific needs.
What to do about it: Rather than starting with boilerplate that begins, “We are pleased to submit…,” jump into a brief description of the benefits your solution provides. Convey your enthusiasm through your tone, and show readers you’re truly listening to their needs. Here’s an example: “This proposal outlines a three-stage software implementation that will enable Company X to dramatically improve its customer service without interrupting current processes.”
2. Ignoring the broad context
The pitfall: You dive straight into technical details without orienting non-expert readers to the big picture.
Why it’s damaging: The non-expert readers trying to make sense of your proposal can’t process technical descriptions in terms of screws, bolts, or bits. They need to know how your device, technology, or methodology will function in their world. How will it make a difference to the way they do their job or to the way their organization performs?
What to do about it: Before you go under the hood of your technology, present the big picture. Frame your technical solution in terms of the business goals they address. Consider your readers’ vantage point on the world and show how your technology will look from their perspective.
3. Providing too much background
The pitfall : You attempt to address your readers’ lack of technical knowledge by providing an overwhelming amount of historical information or technical detail.
Why it’s damaging: There are two sure-fire ways to bore readers: (1) tell them what they already know, and (2) tell them what they don’t really need to know.
What to do about it: Ask yourself, “What’s the minimum amount of background my readers need to know in order to appreciate the value of my proposed solution?” In most cases, the decision-makers reading a proposal don’t need to know all the ins and outs of a technology—they just need to understand how it will enable them to achieve their goals.
4. Writing for the powerless
The pitfall: You write primarily for the reader you know best rather than for the reader who holds the power to make decisions.
Why it’s damaging: The person requesting the proposal may or may not be the person who has the authority to say “yes” or “no” to it. If you don’t target the decision-maker, your line of argument could slant in the wrong direction.
What to do about it: Conduct a thorough audience analysis, identifying the various people who will likely read the proposal. From among those people, select the person you think holds the most power as an influencer or a decision-maker. Make sure that your proposal speaks explicitly to the needs, interests, and values of that person, who is your primary reader.
5. Targeting the lowest common denominator
The pitfall: Faced with a wide, diverse audience, you tailor your technical descriptions to readers having the least amount of technical knowledge, “dumbing down” your content to their level.
Why it’s damaging: Readers with the least amount of technical knowledge may or may not be the readers with the most influence.
What to do about it: Make your proposal accessible for readers with varying levels of technical knowledge by providing alternative pathways through it. For readers with little technical knowledge, provide easy-to-access definitions and background explanations. For readers with plenty of technical knowledge, make it easy for them to identify and skip over content they don’t need to consult. Most importantly, create a clear, easy-to-follow path through the document for your primary reader, the decision-maker.
6. Selling every possible benefit
The pitfall: In your attempt to sell the value of your solution, you describe every possible benefit it could provide, in every possible situation.
Why it’s damaging: Your readers don’t want to know how your solution can serve all your potential customers. They want to feel special, to know that you’ve zeroed in on their unique needs and have thought carefully about how to serve them.
What to do about it: Rather than providing an exhaustive list of benefits, select the handful of benefits that will deliver the most impact for your readers. If you’re selling a software system to a bank, don’t bother pointing out all the benefits it provides to manufacturers. Choose your main points carefully so you show your readers how deeply you care about their specific needs and goals.
7. Ignoring the competition
The pitfall: You write as if your solution is the only option your readers might consider.
Why it’s damaging: In most cases, your readers will want to use your proposal to compare your solution with others. If you ignore the competition, readers may not make an accurate comparison and may therefore draw false conclusions.
What to do about it: To differentiate your solution from other options, you don’t necessarily need to name names. But you do need to show how your solution outperforms the rest. Spell out why it’s the best choice for your readers in their particular situation. (And keep in mind that one choice readers always have is to maintain the status quo.)
8. Closing with a fizzle
The pitfall: After creating a compelling argument for your solution, you come to an abrupt halt, failing to provide a strong sense of an ending or clear next steps.
Why it’s damaging: Busy readers tend to pay attention mostly to the beginning and ending of a proposal. If your ending lacks punch, the argument you make in the body of your proposal may never even get heard.
What to do about it: Ask yourself what you want your reader to do after reading your proposal, and write your conclusion with that goal in mind. You can also put your document through the executive test: skim quickly through your introduction and then jump to the conclusion. Is your wrap-up focused and forceful enough to interest your decision-maker in reading the whole proposal?
In the end, the simple way to steer clear of all these pitfalls is to put the needs and interests of your primary reader (the decision-maker) first. If you focus on who you're writing for rather than what you're writing about, you’ll avoid sabotaging your own words and deliver a persuasive pitch every time.
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