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Broad Contents

Common Sections in a Proposal

Organization of winning proposals

Formats of Proposals

Some tips for writing and presenting proposals

14.1 Common Sections in Proposals:

The following is a review of the sections you will commonly find in proposals. Do not assume

that each one of them has to be in the actual proposal you write, nor that they have to be in the

order they are presented here, plus you may discover that other kinds of information not

mentioned here must be included in your particular proposal.

1. Introduction:

Plan the introduction to your proposal carefully. Make sure it caters to all of the

following things (but not necessarily in this order) that apply to your particular


  • Indicate that the document to follow is a proposal.
  • Refer to some previous contact with the recipient of the proposal or to your source of information about the project.
  • Find one brief motivating statement that will encourage the recipient to read on and to consider doing the project.
  • Give an overview of the contents of the proposal.

Remember that you may not need all of these elements, and some of them can combine

neatly into single sentences. The introduction ought to be brisk and to the point and not

feel as though it is trudging laboriously through each of these elements.

2. Background on the Opportunity:

Often occurring just after the introduction, the background section discusses what has

brought about the need for the project; what problem, what opportunity there is for

improving things, what the basic situation is. An owner of pine timberland may want to

get the land productive of saleable timber without destroying the ecology.

It is true that the audience of the proposal may know the problem very well, in which

case this section might not be needed. Writing the background section still might be

useful, however, in demonstrating your particular view of the problem. And, if the

proposal is unsolicited, a background section is almost a requirement; you will probably

need to convince the audience that the problem or opportunity exists and that it should

be addressed.

3. Benefits and Feasibility of the Proposed Project:

Most proposals discuss the advantages or benefits of doing the proposed project. This

acts as an argument in favor of approving the project. Also, some proposals discuss the

likelihood of the project's success. In the forestry proposal, the proposer is

recommending that the landowner make an investment; at the end of the proposal, he

explores the question of what return there will be on that investment, how likely those

returns are. In the unsolicited proposal, this section is particularly important as you are

trying to "sell" the audience on the project.

4. Description of the Proposed Work (Results of the Project):

Most proposals must describe the finished product of the proposed project. In this

course, that means describing the written document you propose to write, its audience

and purpose; providing an outline; and discussing such things as its length, graphics,

binding, and so forth.) In the scenario you define, there may be other work such as

conducting training seminars or providing an ongoing service. Add that too.

5. Method, Procedure, Theory:

In most proposals, you will want to explain how you will go about doing the proposed

work, if approved to do it. This acts as an additional persuasive element; it shows the

audience you have a sound, well-thought-out approach to the project. Also, it serves as

the other form of background some proposals need. Remember that the background

section (the one discussed above) focused on the problem or need that brings about the

proposal. However, in this section, we will discuss the technical background relating to

the procedures or technology you plan to use in the proposed work. For example, in the

forestry proposal, the writer gives a bit of background on how timber management is

done. Once again, this gives the proposal writer a chance to show that you know what

you are talking about, and build confidence in the audience that you are a good choice

to do the project.

6. Schedule:

Most proposals contain a section that shows not only the projected completion date but

also key milestones for the project. If you are doing a large project spreading over many

months, the timeline would also show dates on which you would deliver progress

reports. And if you cannot cite specific dates, cite amounts of time or time spans for

each phase of the project.

7. Qualifications:

Most proposals contain a summary of the proposing individual's or organization's

qualifications to do the proposed work. It is like a mini-resume contained in the

proposal. The proposal audience uses it to decide whether you are suited for the project.

Therefore, this section lists work experience, similar projects, references, training, and

education that show familiarity with the project.

8. Costs, Resources Required:

Most proposals also contain a section detailing the costs of the project, whether internal

or external. With external projects, you may need to list your hourly rates, projected

hours, costs of equipment and supplies, and so forth, and then calculate the total cost of

the complete project. With internal projects, there probably would not be a fee, but you

should still list the project costs: for example, hours you will need to complete the

project, equipment and supplies you will be using, assistance from other people in the

organization, and so on.

9. Conclusions:

The final paragraph or section of the proposal should bring readers back to a focus on

the positive aspects of the project (you have just showed them the costs). In the final


section, you can end by urging them to get in touch to work out the details of the

project, to remind them of the benefits of doing the project, and maybe to put in one last

plug for you or your organization as the right choice for the project.

10. Special Project-Specific Sections:

Remember that the preceding sections are typical or common in written proposals, not

absolute requirements. Similarly, some proposals may require other sections not

discussed above. Do not let your proposal planning be dictated by the preceding

discussion. Always ask yourself what else might my audience need to understand the

project, the need for it, the benefits arising from it, my role in it, my qualifications to it,

What else might my readers need to be convinced to allow me to do the project? What

else do they need to see in order to approve the project and to approve me to do the


14.2 Organization of Winning Proposals:

As for the organization of the content of a proposal, remember that it is essentially a sales, or

promotional document. Here are the basic steps it goes through:

1. You introduce the proposal, telling the readers its purpose and contents.

2. You present the background – the problem, opportunity, or situation that brings about the

proposed project. Get the reader concerned about the problem, excited about the

opportunity, or interested in the situation in some way.

3. State what you propose to do about the problem, how you plan to help the readers take

advantage of the opportunity, how you intend to help them with the situation.

4. Discuss the benefits of doing the proposed project, the advantages that come from

approving it.

5. Describe exactly what the completed project would consist of, what it would look like, how

it would work – describe the results of the project.

6. Discuss the method and theory or approach behind that method; enable readers to

understand how you will go about the proposed work.

7. Provide a schedule, including major milestones or checkpoints in the project.

8. Briefly list your qualifications for the project; provide a mini-resume of the background you

have that makes you right for the project.

9. Now (and only now), list the costs of the project, the resources you will need to do the


10. Conclude with a review of the benefits of doing the project (in case the shock from the costs

section was too much), and urge the audience to get in touch or to accept the proposal.

Notice the overall logic of the movement through these section: you get them concerned about a

problem or interested in an opportunity, then you get them excited about how you will fix the

problem or do the project, then you show them what good qualifications you have – then hit

them with the costs, but then come right back to the good points about the project.

14.3 Format Of Proposals:

Following are the options for the format and packaging of your proposal. It does not matter

which you use as long as you use the memorandum format for internal proposals and the

business letter format for external proposals.

Cover Letter With Separate Proposal:

In this format, you write a brief "cover" letter and attach the proposal proper after it. The

cover letter briefly announces that a proposal follows and outlines the contents of it. In fact,

the contents of the cover letter are pretty much the same as the introduction (discussed in

the previous section). Notice, however, that the proposal proper that follows the cover letter

repeats much of what you see in the cover letter. This is because the letter may get detached

from the proposal or the recipient may not even bother to look at the letter and just dive

right into the proposal itself.

Cover Memo with Separate Proposal:

In this format, you write a brief "cover" memo and attach the proposal proper after it. The

cover memo briefly announces that a proposal follows and outlines the contents of it. In

fact, the contents of the cover memo are pretty much the same as the introduction

(discussed in the previous section). This is because the memo may get detached from the

proposal or the reader may not even bother to look at the memo and just dive right into the

proposal itself.

Business-Letter Proposal:

In this format, you put the entire proposal within a standard business letter. You include

headings and other special formatting elements as if it were a report.

Memo Proposal:

In this format, you put the entire proposal within a standard office memorandum. You

include headings and other special formatting elements as if it were a report.

If we are in a competitive bid situation, usually price, schedule, financial stability, quality of

experience and resources and financing offer (if any) are relevant. However, many contract

awards are made on a negotiated basis. While success may depend on some or all of the above

features, two others many come into strategic play:

1. Interpersonal relationships with people of the prospective client

2. The written word in the proposal. Conveying the real proposal message with effective

writing is essential.

Below is a list of seven key ingredients of a winning proposal.

i) Message:

That we understand the project, the owner’s real wants, and are prepared to satisfy them

with our resources and company commitment.

ii) Response:

Complete and direct response to the Request for Proposal (RFP) or the bidding

documents. The client wrote them, or at least approved them, and expects to see them

addressed in their entirety.

iii) Disclosure:

Comprehensive documentation of all relevant company experience. Careful attention to

personnel resumes, rewriting them to emphasize pertinent experience.

iv) Creativity:

Something unique or innovative to set us apart from the competition.

v) Price:

Usually but not always a significant factor in competitive proposals on bids.

vi) Financing:

More than ever, an important consideration, even a requirement. Bids are usually

adjusted by financing terms offered, so the product of price and financing determines

the “bottom line”.

vii) Style:

Well composed, concisely written, logically organized, properly referenced, and

attractively presented.

In preparing the proposal strategy, all of the homework already accomplished needs to be

woven into the plan. Some Request for Proposals (RFPs) (most for engineering work) include

an evaluation system to award proposals a number of points in selected categories. Typical

evaluation criteria may include a point distribution as shown below:

  • Qualification of proposed personnel, particularly the project manager: Up to 50%
  • Experience on similar projects: Range of 25-35%
  • Proposed work plan and approach: Range of 25-35%

Cost or level of estimated effort in terms of man-hour or man-months may well be the deciding

factor. If so, in times of a strong U.S. dollar it very definitely places a U.S. firm at a

disadvantage overseas.

Obviously, if evaluation criteria are specified, every effort needs to be made to achieve the

maximum possible score.

Various techniques are employed in proposal writing, i.e., getting the message across. Aside

from outlines, schedules and tables of contents, one technique, which has come into wide use, is

called the “story board”.

It employs modules organized for each strategic message intended for the proposal. Each

module is composed of:

1. A topical sentence describing the module theme

2. A theme expressing the strategic message in, say 400 –800 words

3. Graphic or artwork to illustrate the theme

Modules from their earlier skeleton form and further developed during the proposal preparation

process are posted on the wall of a control room. When finished they tell the complete story.

This technique permits early organization of the proposal contents, allows continuous

management overview, directs the tone of the proposal toward its strategic objectives, clearly

establishes writing assignments, and produces a balance of content.

A carefully conceived financing package is often a proposal requirement. This subject is

covered in separate former oral presentations, in addition to written proposals, sometimes are

important steps in the process. However, overseas clients generally are less interested in

receiving them than in the United States.

What about post proposal strategies? Continuous contact with the perspective client, in an effort

to answer his questions and to further demonstrate our commitment to his project, can be

worthwhile. If our proposal was not selected, a postmortem will be of value to determine how

we went wrong or how the competition outdid us.

14.4 Some Tips for Writing and Presenting Proposals:

The following tried and tested tips are to encourage the 100%ers to write more proposals and

the low raters to take heart and give it another try.


1. Ask Questions:

Before starting your proposal, take some time to make sure you know exactly what you

are proposing. If you are unclear about any part of the project, ask your potential client

a few meaningful questions. If anything seems vague in their description of “what they

want”, ask for clarification and then give them a list of possible options as to what you

think they might have meant. For your sake, when preparing to give a price, it is

important that you and the client both have the same amount of work in mind. Note that

if you decide to include a list of questions along with your proposal, include an

educated guess as to what their answers would be. Make it clear that your price is based

on you having made the correct guesses to the proposed questions and that if anything

needs clarifying or if anything is missed, you can adjust your quote accordingly.

2. Summarize the Project:

Take all the information on the project that you have received from the client thus far

and summarize it briefly, using your own words, in an opening paragraph. This not only

helps you get a clearer concept of the project in your own mind but also gives the client

confidence that you have given it thought and you understand what they want. It also

provides a solid opportunity for them to clarify encase you did not understand.

3. Break Down the Project into a Nice “To Do” List:

After your summary, follow-up with a solid “To Do” list, that is very useful for both

you and your client. List everything that they have requested so far as well as your

standard work on the project. For designers, this would include listing the initial drafts,

etc. For programmers, this would include planning the database, building it, etc. Be

thorough in your list. It will help give the client a strong sense that you know what you

are doing and that you will do the job well. It will also help you make sure nothing slips

through the cracks. Use the list in your project updates and cross things off as you move


4. Split the Project into Phases:

After your “to do” list split the project up into a number of clearly defined phases. It is

recommended starting out with a minimum of three. Your first phase might be the

“Initial First Draft”. During this phase, you begin work on the project and end the phase

by sending the client a first draft for testing and revision. Your next phase, in a simple 3

phase project, could be “Bug Squashing and Customizing”. During this phase the

project is tested and revisions are made until the client is happy with the work and it is

ready for action. Your last phase is “Finalization”. Once the work is finished, you send

them an invoice, ask for referrals, collect payment, and end with a virtual handshake, all

parties satisfied with a job well done. Bonus: A useful strategy to keep in mind when it

comes to pricing is splitting up a long to-do list into meaningful project phases and then

pricing each of the “phases” individually. This can be especially useful for isolating

features that require additional time and energy and being sure the client recognizes the

work involved when it comes time to give them the price.

5. Give Your Clients a Timeline:

Once you have gone over the project phases, let your clients know approximately how

long you expect the project to take. Be generous (overestimate if need be, but gently)

and then strive to finish up ahead of time. While a project may only take you a few

hours to finish up, keep in mind that there will be waiting time between the initial drafts

and the finished project as the client reviews the work and provides feedback. If the

client is in a rush, let them know exactly when it can be finished and be sure to go over

in detail exactly what, if anything needs to be done on their part to make that deadline



6. Estimate Your Time Involved:

While not useful for all project types, giving an estimate of time involved is useful for

most and not only gives the client a sense of what to expect and that you know what

you are doing, but also helps you know exactly what to plan ahead for. A large

design/programming project, for example, with a high dollar amount, can be an

excellent opportunity to detail the hours involved in each step of the to-do list. Be

generous, but honest. The last thing you want is word getting around that it takes you

several hours to do what takes the average freelancer 15 minutes.

7. Use the Multiple Choice Price Strategy:

Now that all the details have been clearly laid out and your client is confident in your

understanding of the project and your ability to see it through, it’s time to give them the

price. Calculate your predicted time involved and be sure that nothing is overlooked.

Then, give them the total number of hours along with your standard hourly rate

followed by a discounted “flat rate”. Let us say you estimate about 5-8 hours involved

in the project and your hourly rate is $40 an hour. Your proposal would then read

something like this: “At around 5-8 hours of work, you are welcome to my basic hourly

rate of $40 an hour or a discounted flat rate of $250.” 9 times out of 10 the client will

choose the flat rate over the hourly and will be happy with having had the freedom to

choose. Note that as an honest freelance artist whose abilities are constantly improving,

you will often reach a point where what once took you 5 hours now takes you an hour.

Once that happens, the multiple price strategy is no longer needed. Give them your flat

rate and do an excellent job. Be sure that, along with your price, you give them your

options for accepting payment.

8. Offer a Satisfaction Guarantee:

Once you have given them the price, be sure to include your satisfaction guarantee. Let

them know that you are committed to working on the project until they are fully

satisfied and then, once they have accepted your proposal, stick to it. There is always

the possibility that it can backfire with a client who just does not ever seem to be

satisfied (we can talk about dealing with them another day), but the vast majority of the

time a solid guarantee will give your clients an extra vote of confidence and help to

close the deal. There is always the possibility of a project costing you more time than it

is worth, but no matter. Give the project your absolute best and learn everything that

you can. Satisfied customers often end up being repeat customers and they are more

than worth the time spent on those who may not appreciate your work.

9. End With a Call to Action:

Finally, after all the details have been made clear, and the price and guarantee given,

end with “what happens next.” Let them know exactly what they need to do to get

started. If you require payment upfront, let them know where to send the money. If

everything prior has gone well, you now have a client who is excited and eager to see

their project come to life and you want to make sure that they know what needs to

happen next.

10. Write and Format Professionally:

Nothing says “unprofessional” like a bunch of “misspellings”, grammatical errors, and

“IM Style” typing. Take the extra time to proof read your proposal and fix any little

errors that may have slipped in. Use spacing between your paragraphs and divide your

various sections (Project Summary, Timeline, Price Quote, etc.) with subheadings. For

extra points, put your proposal up on a password protected page (make sure the

password works) within your website. Remember if you are struggling with style or

would just like some extra ideas/opinions, put together an example proposal and share it

with family and friends along with a request for feedback.

Once the proposal has been accepted and the project complete, be sure to always ask the client

if they have any suggestions for how you can improve and do even better work in the future.

Ask them if your proposal was clear and ask if you were able, what the deciding factor was in

choosing you to do the work. Take note of all you learn and apply it to the next proposal you

write. Although not directly related to “proposal writing”, here are two other tips that are worth


1. Pre-Screen your Clients:

To save both you and your client’s time and energy, it is important to be sure that they

are as informed and as prepared as possible before they contact you. This is where your

website can step in and do its job. After they have browsed through your portfolio and

decided to go for a price on your services, it is important that you provide a clear path

to follow. Create a page specifically for those interested in working with you. Outline

the types of projects that you do and the processes that you use. Do not hide your

prices. As well as offering an hourly rate and flat rate estimates for various project

types, it is better to mention that you are always open to creative negotiations. You can

often end up with “free projects” that more than pay what you would have charged


2. Respond Quickly:

While not always possible, when you are able to, respond to your prospective and active

clients immediately. If you have an expected delay, let them know that you plan to be

unavailable. Be punctual with all your appointments and make sure that you meet your

deadlines. If you miss a deadline and you are at fault, take a hit on your earnings. This

will let the client know that you mean what you say and it will also help you to make

sure it does not happen again.

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