How Your High School English Class is Ruining Your Proposals (Don’t get me started on MBAs)

Oct 30

Ah, high school english class. A time to read classic literature, build your vocabulary and learn to write proper essays. Reading great literature is wonderful, but the latter 2 goals were often in conflict. Because the way teachers measure your essays was in part based on how many fancy vocabulary words to you could cram into them. Using big words not only improved your grade, it also took up space, getting you closer to the critical 5 page minimum. However, this push to utilize advanced diction, albeit to the detriment of semantic transfer, makes for awful writing.

I don’t remember many of the books I read in high school, but one that sticks in my mind, ironically, is an essay by George Orwell, called Politics and the English Language. (Also note Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing.) You may wonder what this has to do with sales, but remember politics is simply sales of a different sort.

Orwell noted how vague language made it easier to describe, and therefore commit, political atrocities. I wasn’t committing any atrocities, except perhaps against the English language. I took a writing course my first semester in college and got quite a rude awakening. Pages came back redder than a murder victim in a Law and Order episode. Whole paragraphs were called “unnecessary garbage”, superfluous words and clauses, which my high school teachers seemed to reward, came back with red lines through them. It was great. For a brief time, I learned to write clean, crisp, compelling papers. I focused on clarity of thought, transmitted through the proper words, to the reader.

Then I entered the work force. The amount of BS I was able to pour onto a page in high school was nothing compared to what the MBAs could do. They were synergistically driving step-function increases in top-line and bottom-line revenue velocity in increasingly competitive disintermediated global market spaces through utilization of highly leveraged business transformation skill sets. They had lots of core values, value-adds, and value creation methodologies. They lived in a world full of superfluous adverbs.

And I bought in. I should have stuck to my guns. But the fact is, it’s easier, when you don’t really know what you’re talking about, or what the reader wants to know, to spout a bunch of BS and mark something as “done” than to figure out what the real problem is, devise a real solution, and communicate that. The problem wasn’t the writing, that was just a symptom. I’m ashamed to say that when I started Mimiran, I wrote proposals the same way. Finally, I realized, “wait a second, I actually know what I’m talking about. I know what the prospect needs to do. How ’bout I tell them in a way that’s really easy to understand?” For some reason, proposals started closing much faster.

As I got better at communicating properly (I’m not perfect, and certainly not a “writer”, I’m just much better than I was), the appalling state of most sales proposals started grating on me. I started helping companies not just move their proposals online, but also to improve the proposals themselves. If reading entire paragraphs of MBA-speak nonsense that conveys nothing of value to the prospect makes my head hurt, imagine how it makes them feel.

What are some of the worst things you’ve read in a sales proposal? (Discuss on Reddit or Hacker News.)

(Want to improve your sales team’s proposal writing? Check out workshops on Creating More Compelling Proposals.)

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