The Secret Ingredient for a Great Business Proposal

I’ve read (and have written) a lot of business proposal over the years. Some of the proposals that come across my desk are great, most are fine, and a few are terrible. I would like to think that the ones I create are pretty darn good, and given my success rate that seems to be the case.

Interestingly, it used to be that all of my proposals were written out as Word documents, but lately it seems that many of the ones I see or create take the form of a PowerPoint slideshow.

Whatever the case, one thing I have noticed is that good proposals have a few things in common, as do bad proposals. Here are what I would consider to be the most important things in any proposal:

1. A clear benefit to the reader: A proposal is a sales document. It needs to sell the reader on the idea, and the way to do that is to show the reader how the idea benefits him or her. It is not about you, it is about them. Will you make them a lot of money, will they get a bigger market share, or what? The key to the proposal is showing the reader that following your lead makes sense for them.

2. Honesty: Honesty in a proposal can take many forms. It means being up front about the financials and not throwing pie-in-the-sky numbers out there. It also means letting your personality and passion shine through. Don’t be a robot or Super Businessman, be yourself.

And also, be honest about any challenges. You should not just avoid talking about possible problems with this idea, but instead, mention them and explain how you plan to deal with them. Your reader will be impressed.

3. Have a secret sauce: You need to be offering people something that is new, unique, different, or better in some respect, or why else would someone invest in your idea? What is it that you bring to the party that is different and better than what everyone else has to offer? Back when I wrote a lot of book proposals, I would need to explain to the publisher how my proposed book, while seemingly similar to other books that were out there, was actually better.

That is what you need to do as well.

4. Avoid jargon and mumbo jumbo: Don’t try to act too smart. Don’t use words that have nebulous meanings. Say what you mean, mean what you say, say it in English, and share your vision and passion.

5. Wait on revealing the cost: A proposal is a marketing tool, and as such, remember Marketing 101: Stress benefits, benefits, benefits. While price is important and must be discussed, do so only after you have wowed reader with your crisp writing, powerful arguments, supporting information, and a boatload of benefits. Then you can go in for the close.


Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is a senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible.

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