What a proposal is and what a proposal does
There are two fundamental considerations for every proposal: what goes into it and how it’s presented.
Every project proposal contains at least some of these elements, though not necessarily in this order: cover letter, title page, table of contents, credentials and qualifications, statement of the problem and rationale for undertaking the job, goal(s) and supporting objectives, plan of operation, work or product measurement and evaluation, summary, cost, and appendices. How you organize, write, and deliver your proposal is essential to its success.
A proposal is nothing more than a tool that you use to get an assignment. It should not be a blueprint for doing the job. After all, you certainly don’t want to give away everything you know in your proposal so that your potential client or supervisor can simply pick it up and hand it over to someone else to implement. There is often a fine line between telling what you plan to do and telling how you plan to do it. The most effective proposals march boldly up to that line…and stop.
Summarize up front
Begin your proposal with an executive summary, preferably one that’s no more than one page in length. Obviously, it’s much easier to write the summary after the proposal is complete; doing so at the outset generally means extra work making revisions later on. In all likelihood your direction will change somewhat as you construct the document’s various parts.
The summary is not a substitute for the proposal itself. Rather, it is a quick and concise reference to what the proposal contains. Sometimes called an abstract, outline, or precis, the summary is a condensed statement of what the full proposal contains. During a personal presentation, it is useful both as an introduction and a wrap-up. Later on if it becomes necessary to return to the proposal for clarification of certain points, the summary serves as a convenient memory jogger. For these reasons you might consider using bulleted points when formatting your summary.
A word about organizing
Before actually starting to write any part of your proposal, think about what you want to put into it-and what you prefer to leave out. A logical, sequential construction becomes an outline that enables you to move through your oral presentation smoothly and thoroughly, developing both your narrative and your qualifications for the job as you go.
As you organize your thoughts, make notes of what you need to include and then sort them into the order in which you intend to address each one during the presentation meeting with your client or supervisor. It’s best to sort like with like. That is, don’t mix company and departmental backgrounds or personal biographies, credentials, and references with your plan of action. Place such support and historical material-evidence of your capabilities-after the plan that you are suggesting.
Because it tells your understanding of the project and states that you are the right person, department, or company to do the job, the cover letter is the most important element of the proposal; it is also the very last item to prepare before you make your presentation. Keep it short, no more than one page. State the problem in a sentence or two and tell what you intend to do about it. Don’t forget to express your appreciation for the opportunity to submit your proposal.
Do not bind your letter into the proposal itself. It’s all right to clip it to the cover or insert it into an inside pocket of a folder, but it should be loose so that as you begin your presentation, the recipient can hold it in his or her hand.
Print the letter on letterhead, preferably a heavy sheet that has a good feel. Address it to your primary contact, the person with whom you will work and to whom you will report. Always sign the letter. You may use your first or full name; it depends upon how personally close you are to the addressee. Don’t be presumptuous in making that decision, however; it’s safer to err on the side of formality than to presume a familiarity that isn’t really there.
The problem and the plan
The primary section of the proposal describes the problem or project as you see it. That bears repeating: State your understanding of the need and circumstances that prompted your submitting the proposal. Explain the rationale for action. That is, tell your audience what their problem is and why they need your expertise and assistance. Don’t assume they know. Define the scope of the undertaking and the solutions and goals you intend to achieve, describing each in terms of discrete objectives.
Take care to avoid inadvertently implying commitments for actions other than those specifically stated within your plan. Don’t, for example, allow an inference to be drawn that you will supply certain materials, personnel, documentation, training, or ongoing support if you do not intend to do so. Likewise, be cautious during your presentation about committing to oral agreements that are not contained in the written proposal. It is perfectly acceptable-even advisable-to outline both your obligations and those of the individual or company to whom you are submitting your proposal. Better to discuss and agree upon such items at the time of the proposal presentation than to face misunderstandings down the road.