How to Write a Business Proposal Outline
Quickly writing business proposals is key to winning new deals … but properly aggregating all the content from subject matter experts (SMEs) is often a time-consuming and frustrating task.
Fortunately, creating an effective business proposal outline can give you and your SMEs the structure needed to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs) in the shortest time possible.
(Download The Formula for Creating Winning RFP Responses to get an in-depth explanation on how to create revenue-generating proposals.)
So, how exactly do you create an effective business proposal outline?
3 things you need to know to create successful business proposal outlines
1. What a business proposal outline is and isn’t
It’s important not to confuse a business proposal with a business plan. The goal of the former is to win a sale, while the goal of the latter is to create a strategy for achieving a business objective or overcoming a challenge.
A business proposal outline provides the framework in which SMEs and proposal writers can add content with the goal of creating an RFP response that wins business.
2. Why start with an outline?
The purpose of creating a business proposal outline is to add structure to the too-often chaotic process of gathering content to create a winning proposal.
According to Ian Linton, global copywriter and author, “By drawing an outline for your business proposal, you prepare a framework for including all the important messages in your proposal. Your outline should cover the messages you feel will convince the customer to select your product or service.”
By developing a framework that covers your key messaging strategy, you accomplish two things.
First, you make life easier for your SMEs. While we need SMEs to answer technical questions and provide expertise when creating a business proposal, we can’t expect them to be experts in the art of persuasion.
By clearly outlining your expectations, you help ensure they will provide the information you need to successfully win over prospects … without your having to ask for additional information and clarification.
Second, you make life easier for your proposal writer. By presenting all the proposal content they need in a structured format, you help them focus on using the information to craft a compelling narrative — rather than spending hours organizing information from various sources.
3. What a business proposal outline should include
The outline of your business proposal should cover each section you want to include in the final proposal, as well as what information you want that section to convey.
While every proposal is unique and you should include and remove sections based on the information you receive in the RFP, most outlines should include the following:
This is probably the most important section of your business proposal. Your prospects are busy, and many of them will only read this section … unless you can convince them to read more.
It’s important to approach your executive summary as your proposal’s hook. This is likely your only chance to get your prospect’s attention and convince them the rest of the proposal is worth reading.
You can learn a lot about how to approach the executive summary by learning how journalists approach leads — also known as ledes. Leads are the intro to a news article, and journalists understand that it’s crucial to write this part effectively if they want readers to finish the story.
According to Hannah Bloch, a digital editor for international news at NPR, the purpose of the lead “is to make the reader want to stay and spend some precious time with whatever you’ve written. It sets the tone and pace and direction for everything that follows. It is the puzzle piece on which the rest of the story depends.”
For tips on how to create leads that hook your reader and have them begging to read more, invest in a copy of “Great Leads: The Six Easiest Ways to Start Any Sales Message.” This book takes the journalistic concept of leads and shows exactly how to apply it in a sales context.
The about us section is one of the most difficult sections to write effectively. Your prospects read this section to learn about your organization and decide whether you fit their goals and values.
But here’s the thing: Your prospects don’t actually care about you.
It’s not your fault. It’s just the way people are wired.
Mark Hunter, sales consultant and speaker, put it best:
“Unless you’re somebody famous or unless you have a product everyone has to have, I hate to break the news to you, but your prospect couldn’t care less.
“What does this mean to you?
“It means you need to quit sending out stupid emails or leaving pathetic voicemails that extoll who you are and how great your company is. Your prospects simply don’t care!”
So, does this mean you can skip the about us section? Unfortunately, no.
Writing this section plays an important role in building rapport and trust with your prospects, but you have to navigate it carefully to avoid losing your reader’s interest.
Fortunately, several companies have already successfully overcome this challenge, and we can learn from their examples. Check out this list of 15 companies and experts who understand how to write engaging about us or about me content. (Note: This list covers about me and about us pages for websites, but the principals and lessons apply equally well to proposals.)
This is where you detail the key dates and milestones your prospects can look forward to should they become customers.
This is key to setting the appropriate expectations. Make sure the dates aren’t so far in the future that they cause your prospects to think you move too slowly, but also aren’t so ambitious that your team has to scramble to keep your promises.
References and case studies
References and case studies are critical to convincing your prospects they want to do business with your organization. While they expect you and your team to say great things about your company, they expect your customers’ assessments to be more accurate.
“We look for and act on (even if subconsciously) social proof in all areas our life — including how we behave and the purchasing decisions we make online.
“It doesn’t matter if that social proof comes from friends or strangers. What matters is that we’re seeing evidence from our peers — in this context, other consumers — that the decision we’re about to make is the right one.”
To see examples of well-crafted case studies, check out a few that we’ve put together. (We may be biased about the whole “well-crafted” thing.)
Ready to move beyond the outline?
Creating an effective business proposal outline sets the foundation for a successful proposal, but your work isn’t quite done yet.
Download “The formula for creating winning RFP responses” to get an in-depth explanation on how to create revenue-generating proposals.