Most sales proposals look like they were designed by the template team for Microsoft Word, circa 1995. I get a lot of questions about how proposals should look and how important the aesthetics of the proposal are to buying decisions. So how much time, effort, and money should you invest in graphics for your proposals?

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I think proposals should be as short and simple as possible. This particularly applies to words, but also to graphical elements. So the question is how do the graphical elements help (or hurt) the process of closing the deal?

In many cases, graphics are helpful:

  • Diagrams of complex processes and systems (usually in conjunction with text).
  • Photos of products, including screen shots or mockups.
  • Images of people on the team (make it personal).

When graphics hurt:

  • The quality is so low that you can’t understand them (for example, small text in diagrams) or the buyer questions your professionalism.
  • Gratuitous (or gratuitously large) logos, photos of offices, or other elements that are about the proposing company’s ego, not helping the buyer solve a problem (note that logos and HQ shots can be used effectively).
  • When graphics seem disconnected from the rest of the proposal, for example when someone copies an image in simply “to make it look pretty.”
  • When focus on the graphics distracts from the core mission of the proposal.

This last point is perhaps the most important. Proposals must convince buyers that you are the best choice to solve their problem. I said “no” to the best looking proposal that a potential vendor ever gave to me. The proposal was stunning, with carefully arranged graphics, fonts, and images. It looked fantastic. Except that it didn’t address my problem. The formatting of the proposal impressed me enough that I didn’t simply reject it, I asked about my problem. Instead of getting crisp answers, I got vagueness. The team had spent their time and effort projecting a beautiful image, without understanding what I really needed.

Use graphics to enhance the story in your proposal, to make abstract ideas about products and solutions more concrete (this can also prevent misunderstandings later) and to put a face to your people. Don’t use graphics to distract from not really understanding what your prospect needs. (If you don’t know, ask.)

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