Language Matters, and You’re Not Fooling Anyone with Weasel Words in Your Proposal

Clear communication is essential to any group effort, especially when that efforts spans more than one company. Sales proposals are a prime example, but marketing materials and web copy also require a meeting of the minds. I should know. I’ve written some horrendous proposals that required follow-on calls just to explain what I meant. Not to make a decision about the proposal. My writing was so fully of “synergistically driving leveraged value-added opportunities” that I had to tell the prospects over the phone what I was talking about. Once I realized that my writing style was getting in the way of deals, and made me look like an insecure jackass rather than a sophisticated business professional, I started writing better, and deals closed faster.

Beyond using the right words, effective communication requires proper wording. One of the big giveaways of bad writing (and bad thinking) is too much passive voice. Compare:

“Appropriate data is to be supplied in a timely manner.”


“The client’s database administrator, Mary, will supply the data by the end of week 2.”


“Status reports will be delivered every Friday.”


“The project manager will deliver a status report every Friday.”

Simply using the active voice makes meaning clearer, and the language far more powerful. Everyone knows who is responsible for what. And that’s why the passive voice often sneaks in, when we want to try to hide who or what is responsible. (“Layoffs are required.”) The switch to the passive voice not only results in weaker language, it highlights the very thing we’re trying to hide. (I did a lot of this when I started writing proposals, trying to mask the client’s obligations for fear of turning them off the project. Turns out you just look like you don’t really know what you’re talking about. When you are straightforward about what the client needs to do, they are more likely to want to work with you.)

[As an aside, the worst offenders are politicians. And anyone who writes for political purposes. See the recent controversy over language in Texas history textbooks trying to hide the abuses of slavery behind the passive the voice.]

One more thing…

I truly believe that adverbs are highly damaging. OK, no one actually writes that way, but how often have you read “At ACME Corp, we truly believe that our highly trained personnel make the difference”, or some similar drivel?


“Don’t use lots of adverbs.”

When companies, politicians, sales reps, etc announce that they “truly believe” something, it only makes you wonder if the stuff they just “believe” is a lie. The “truly” only accentuates the “truthiness” of the statement. And do you really need to have your “beliefs” in your proposals? And what does “highly trained” mean? Are some folks “lowly trained”? If you do “truly believe” in training, call attention to what it means for your customers.

“Unlike many firms, who want to use the cheapest labor they can find, we pay for experienced, driven professionals. Everyone on your project has at least 5 years of experience, and everyone at ACME Corp spends at least a week of non-billable time training on the latest technologies. Our investment in our people means we build a team with great skills and we avoid the constant turnover of body shops. Our rates aren’t the cheapest (and our people aren’t, either), but you get much better value from having great people work on your business’s challenges.” (Then, have a bio or two, with pictures, of the people involved in the project. If you’re using Mimiran, you can even embed a video.)

If your writing is so complicated you need a follow up call to explain it, you’ll have problems. If you try to hide critical issues with passive voice, you’ll have problems. If you try to strengthen your language with adverbs, you’ll weaken it instead. Despite what you may have learned in high school, clear simple language will help you close deals.


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