Rules for Proposal Writing and Fiction Writing: Not What You Think

I’ve read plenty of proposals that sound like (bad) fiction. I’m not talking about the rules that says “don’t write fiction for your proposals.” That ought to go without saying.

I’m talking about a great piece of writing advice from Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, and other novels.

His recent essay, Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs struck a chord.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates.

And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

This is advice for fiction writers. What does it have to do with writing sales proposals? (Many purchasing managers will think that’s a funny joke.)

Many sales proposals suffer from the same problems as fiction. There’s too much happening in the main character’s head, and not enough in the real world. Especially when you make the main character of your sales proposal you, instead of your customer. Let’s take a look:

Sample Proposal Snippet

We sincerely believe that this approach will yield the biggest gains, by streamlining the TPS reporting process that many feel causes unnecessary delays.

First of all, the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and adding “sincerely” only serves to call your sincerity into question. Next, “believing” and “feeling” is only useful if everyone else already feels the same way. It does nothing to convert people who don’t feel that way, or who may even share your beliefs and feelings, but aren’t convinced about your recommendations.

So why do people write this? Because it seems easy. You have a conversation with the prospect, they say something about the TPS process causing unnecessary delays, they ask for a proposal. You write this down, and then wonder why the deal doesn’t close.

You have to do some more work upfront. What kind of delays? Who feels that way? Who doesn’t? What is the impact of the delays? You may not get complete, quantified answers to these questions, but you can make some headway.

Revised Sample Proposal Snippet:

The TPS report process introduced last year has worked well in most cases, reducing report generation time by almost 50% and enabling faster responses to quote requests. However, in cases when 2 regions have to collaborate, the process breaks down and we have to revert to manual processes. This means that reports can take 2-5 days to generate, and since these interregional reports are typically involve the largest sales opportunities (average deal size of $830,000 vs $275,000 for single region deals), the the total revenue involved in these deals is disproportionate to their small number (about $25 million, nearly 40% of the total). We lost at least one deal (worth $900,000) because of this delayed response and we may have missed several others.

We can automate the interregional TPS report process for less than the cost of one lost interregional deal, and we can build the solution in a test environment so we don’t disrupt the faster deal flow of single region reports.  After testing, we will go live over the weekend to minimize any potential disruptions.

This example doesn’t rely on feelings, it present facts. It also addresses potential objections, and acknowledges that not everyone is worried about the problem. In fact, for some people, trying to solve the problem creates risk that they don’t want.

As Palahniuk writes:

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

How do you counteract this kind of writing? When you read through your notes and your proposal, note any time you make an assumption about what is happening in someone’s head, even if it’s your own. This just means you probably need to go ask some more questions, so you can make the abstract concrete and make your proposals more compelling.

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