Appendix A: Common Business Writing Genres
- Describe the basic elements of a business proposal.
- Discuss the main goals of a business proposal.
- Identify effective strategies to use in a business proposal.
Business proposals are documents designed to make a persuasive appeal to the audience to achieve a defined outcome, often proposing a solution to a problem. Business proposals are not contracts, work orders, price quote, company history, or a bill of materials (Sant, 2012). Proposals should be accurate, complete, and persuasive. With a proposal, you are providing a solution to a problem. In essence, you are selling an idea.
A proposal should not be an “information dump” or use technical jargon (Sant, 2012). Information should be clear, concise, and easy to find.
Elements of a Business Proposal
The Big Idea
Effective business proposals are built around a great idea or solution. While you may be able to present your normal product, service, or solution in an interesting way, you want your document and its solution to stand out against the background of competing proposals. What makes your idea different or unique? How can you better meet the needs of the company that other vendors? What makes you so special? If the purchase decision is made solely on price, it may leave you little room to underscore the value of service, but the sale follow-through has value. For example, don’t consider just the cost of the unit but also its maintenance. How can maintenance be a part of your solution, distinct from the rest? In addition, your proposal may focus on a common product where you can anticipate several vendors at similar prices. How can you differentiate yourself from the rest by underscoring long-term relationships, demonstrated ability to deliver, or the ability to anticipate the company’s needs? Business proposals need to have an attractive idea or solution in order to be effective.
You can be creative in many aspects of the business proposal, but follow the traditional categories. Businesses expect to see information in a specific order, much like a résumé or even a letter. Each aspect of your proposal has its place and it is to your advantage to respect that tradition and use the categories effectively to highlight your product or service. Every category is an opportunity to sell, and should reinforce your credibility, your passion, and the reason why your solution is simply the best.
|Cover Page||Title page with name, title, date, and specific reference to request for proposal if applicable.|
|Executive Summary||Like an abstract in a report, this is a one- or two-paragraph summary of the product or service and how it meets the requirements and exceeds expectations.|
|Background||Discuss the history of your product, service, and/or company and consider focusing on the relationship between you and the potential buyer and/or similar companies.|
|Proposal||The idea. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Make it clear and concise. Don’t waste words, and don’t exaggerate. Use clear, well-supported reasoning to demonstrate your product or service.|
|Market Analysis||What currently exists in the marketplace, including competing products or services, and how does your solution compare?|
|Benefits||How will the potential buyer benefit from the product or service? Be clear, concise, specific, and provide a comprehensive list of immediate, short, and long-term benefits to the company.|
|Timeline||A clear presentation, often with visual aids, of the process, from start to finish, with specific, dated benchmarks noted.|
|Marketing Plan||Delivery is often the greatest challenge for Web-based services—how will people learn about you? If you are bidding on a gross lot of food service supplies, this may not apply to you, but if an audience is required for success, you will need a marketing plan.|
|Financials||What are the initial costs, when can revenue be anticipated, when will there be a return on investment (if applicable)? Again, the proposal may involve a one-time fixed cost, but if the product or service is to be delivered more than once, and extended financial plan noting costs across time is required.|
|Conclusion||Like a speech or essay, restate your main points clearly. Tie them together with a common theme and make your proposal memorable.|
Ethos, Pathos, and Logos
While reports are factual and sometimes dry, proposals are meant to hold interest. They are meant to be persuasive which will need ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to credibility, pathos to passion and enthusiasm, and logos to logic or reason. Proposals are much different from reports because of one important factor: emotion.
Your audience’s pathos needs to be considered when writing a proposal – their emotions need to be invoked. For proposals, use strategic language to excite and motivate your readers. By using descriptive adjectives, your proposal will cater to your audience’s pathos.
In order to seem credible, consider your reader’s ethos. You can ensure your credibility by being honest, accurate, and specific. Using proper grammar, citations, spelling, and punctuation is a must.
Logos is used in persuasive writing constantly. People tend to like data and numbers when making decisions. The FDA would want to know the exact success rate of a clinical drug study before they approve it. In business, it is the same. Appeal to logos by providing hard facts, evidence, and details.
A professional document is a base requirement. If it is less than professional, you can count on its prompt dismissal. There should be no errors in spelling or grammar, and all information should be concise, accurate, and clearly referenced when appropriate. Information that pertains to credibility should be easy to find and clearly relevant, including contact information. If the document exists in a hard copy form, it should be printed on a letterhead. If the document is submitted in an electronic form, it should be in a file format that presents your document as you intended. Word processing files may have their formatting changed or adjusted based on factors you cannot control—like screen size—and information can shift out of place, making it difficult to understand. In this case, a portable document format (PDF)—a format for electronic documents—may be used to preserve content location and avoid any inadvertent format changes when it is displayed.
Effective, persuasive proposals are often brief, even limited to one page. “The one-page proposal has been one of the keys to my business success, and it can be invaluable to you too. Few decision-makers can ever afford to read more than one page when deciding if they are interested in a deal or not. This is even more true for people of a different culture or language,” said Adnan Khashoggi, a successful multi-billionaire (Riley, 2002). Clear and concise proposals serve the audience well and limit the range of information to prevent confusion.
Types of Business Proposals
If you have been asked to submit a proposal it is considered solicited. The solicitation may come in the form of a direct verbal or written request, but normally solicitations are indirect, open-bid to the public, and formally published for everyone to see. A request for proposal (RFP), request for quotation (RFQ), and invitation for bid (IFB) are common ways to solicit business proposals for business, industry, and the government.
RFPs typically specify the product or service, guidelines for submission, and evaluation criteria. RFQs emphasize cost, though service and maintenance may be part of the solicitation. IRBs are often job-specific in that they encompass a project that requires a timeline, labor, and materials. For example, if a local school district announces the construction of a new elementary school, they normally have the architect and engineering plans on file, but need a licensed contractor to build it.
Unsolicited proposals are the “cold calls” of business writing. They require a thorough understanding of the market, product and/or service, and their presentation is typically general rather than customer-specific. They can, however, be tailored to specific businesses with time and effort, and the demonstrated knowledge of specific needs or requirement can transform an otherwise generic, brochure-like proposal into an effective sales message. Getting your tailored message to your target audience, however, is often a significant challenge if it has not been directly or indirectly solicited. Unsolicited proposals are often regarded as marketing materials, intended more to stimulate interest for a follow-up contact than make direct sales. Sue Baugh and Robert Hamper encourage you to resist the temptation to “shoot at every target and hope you hit at least one” (Baugh, L. S., and Hamper, R. J., 1995). A targeted proposal is your most effective approach, but recognize the importance of gaining company, service, or brand awareness as well as its limitations.
This type of proposal is used for summary purposes. A letter format is often appropriate for more casual business interactions, without sales pressure (Forsyth, 2016).
A formal proposal is done in a report style. A formal approach is recommended when there are high stakes or important decisions to be made or when the ideas are complex (Forsyth, 2016).
Sant, T., & Ebooks Corporation. (2012). Persuasive business proposals: Writing to win more customers, clients, and contracts (3rd ed.). New York: AMACOM.
Forsyth, P. (2016). How to write reports and proposals (Fourth ed.). London, United Kingdom;Philadelphia, PA;: Kogan Page.
Baugh, L. S., & Hamper, R. J. (1995). Handbook for writing proposals (p. 3). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Riley, P. G. (2002). The one-page proposal: How to get your business pitch onto one persuasive page (p. 2). New York, NY: HarperCollins.