The best advice I can give anyone for proposal writing or review is that the proposal firstly MUST tell a good story. It must convey to its readers a compelling, cogent vision grounded in experience, facts and details.

To get there, to prepare a strong and effective business proposal or conduct an effective review, start with a series of small, do-able tasks to generate the detail required. Always ask the right questions at the start. Even if you never write a word, actively question and manage all participants.

If you feel you are lost in a mist, even after working through a series of questions, you will never effectively get onto a page what your business is on about because you aren’t sure yourself.

Failures at the planning stage by head office executives can contribute to enormous down the line losses. A popular illustration of this has become one of the most famous marketing disaster stories in US history. It is the story of the 1957 launch of the Ford Edsel . It is the first car in our photo for this post. Despite the project chewing through US$400 million in development costs, on launch, sales of the Edsel flopped. In contrast the launch of the Ford Mustang (second car in the photo) was one of the most successful in automotive history. I read a design book years ago where the author’s hypothesis for the failure of the Edsel included criticism of its design. He wrote, quite seriously, that the body design of cars of the time had protuberances resembling the male reproductive organ, while the Edsel’s front grille… um… it’s obvious!

Although proposals form part of business 101, it is remarkably common for there to exist conflicting, inaccurate, or unsupported views by people who need to be on the same page for proposal writing or review.

Also, too many people mistakenly strive in formatting their proposals to adhere to a stiff format. Worse still they write something on a topic heading because the heading is there in a request or tender, as if any deviation will invoke the wrath of Voodoo gods. And indeed, it is absolutely correct that not adhering to a recognised format or to a specified response format will either render a submission non-compliant, or may confuse its readers. What’s needed is a mix of originality and standardisation.

Perfection is not possible. On the one hand there is the problem of analysis paralysis and on the opposite extreme there are proposals full of drivel. Business is always about achieving a balance between immediate and longer term goals.


“Good businesses always plan ahead, including in proposals. However, they don’t always clearly state their strategic goals and record them engagingly in their plans or proposals.

This can be because they are not following a clear and specific questioning and assessment process. Good businesses are often more than content to rightly focus on the immediate matters at hand, and they do so without losing sight of their long term objectives.”

Short proposal checklist

When writing or reviewing proposals, consider the following questions:

  1. What is the problem? For a request for a proposal (RFP) and a response in the form of a written proposal YOU need to be clear about the problem that requires a solution.
  2. How is the problem solved? Defining the problem determines YOUR approach to it – the method or methodology. If the definition of the problem is not clear, the writing is on the wall for failure of the proposed method for solving it.
  3. Is there a workable business model? Is it in alignment with the relevant goals, targets, objectives and KPIs? Will it add real value? For example, will your side or the other side benefit financially? Ideas for testing a business model include – doing a feasibility study, preparing a cash flow forecast, conducting a brainstorming session, carrying out desk research and checking the credibility of sources if you’re just “googling it”.
  4. Are resources available? Having defined the problem, methodology for solving it and appropriate business model you are in a position to decide on what resources you have available. It can be better to retreat than to attack with inadequate resources. Critical here are people, hence the next question.
  5. Who is on the management team? Choose the people that will get this done.
  6. What is the competitive environment? Assess this by asking for example:
    • Who are the existing and potential competitors?
    • What substitutes exist in place of the proposed offering?
    • What makes the offered product or service better than that of substitutes?
    • What is the existing and future competitive advantage of the offering?
    • What barriers to entry exist for market entry or market share protection?
  7. Are legal considerations covered? A proposal contains valuable intellectual property which can be protected, just as it can be licensed or bought for a price by the person who has asked for it. In assisting numerous clients in proposal preparation we’ve developed template documents, measures to apply and a package of things to do to protect the proposal itself and the valuable IP that may be in it. They answer questions such as those which following and end today’s sermon.
    • What disclaimers and legal notices apply to the proposal?
    • Whose terms and conditions apply if the proposal is accepted?
    • What intellectual property is there in the product or service?
    • Is that intellectual property documented, notified and registered?
    • Who will own any intellectual property and on what terms?
    • In what document is intellectual property ownership recorded?
Noric Dilanchian