Sales Proposal Writing Tips: Staring Down the Blank Screen

Did you ever have a great meeting with a prospect, when everything felt clear and straightforward, like the deal was in the bag, and then you got back to your office to start your proposal and you stared at that big blank screen and found your mind was just as blank? I have, many times.

Here’s how I’ve dealt with that problem.

First, take good notes. Lots and lots of notes. Things that are clear when you are discussing them get vague awfully quickly later. Make sure you write down key terms. You want to know that you’re dealing with “TPS reports”, not “TSP reports”.

Next, don’t start with a blank screen. Start with a great proposal template (link to example). This helps you frame your thinking. If all your project are pretty similar, having one template may be enough. If you have different projects (training vs implementation, for example), create different templates for each type of project. Now, instead of starting from nothing, you can plug in the key bits for this particular proposal.

Still, it’s easy to stare at the screen and wonder how to phrase critical parts of the proposal. How should I describe the current situation? What is this complex piece of custom software really going to do? Refer back to your notes and try to remember the conversation. Then step away from the screen and “rejoin” the conversation. Literally talk it out. As Seth Godin says “no one gets talkers’ block.” This has become such a habit that I sometimes find myself standing up, walking around my office gesticulating and talking out loud. Usually, I’ve just expressed what seemed so elusive while my hands were perched above the keyboard. It’s a great idea to read your proposal out loud to proof read and check for logical correctness after you write it, but it’s sometimes really helpful to start talking while writing! (If you’re on an airplane or some other situation where talking out loud is not appropriate, close your eyes and imagine the conversation– the point is to get away from thinking about the screen and the mechanics of writing and get into the thought process and the dialog, which is often much more natural for sales people).

Lastly, you may find that despite the techniques above, you don’t know how to phrase certain things. Follow the writers’ advice to lower your standards and keep going. However, the key is to insert the question that will allow you to come back and address the issue properly. For example, if you’re trying to discuss why lost TPS reports are so bad, but realize you only know that losing things is bad, but have no idea what the actual impact is, you can just write “Lost TPS reports are bad [how bad? what happens? how often?].” Not exactly the most awesome sentence ever written in a sales proposal, but you have captured what you know and what you need to find out. Depending on my relationship with a prospect, I may even send over a draft of a proposal like that, to highlight areas we need to discuss further. Otherwise, I’ll just create an email or call script from the questions.

As you do more and more proposals, the process becomes easier. You’ll never have a truly blank screen, because you’ll start with a great template. You’ll have great notes to help you crank out most of the proposal quickly, and to get you back into the conversation when you get stuck. And you’ll learn to ask good questions, so you have fewer unanswered questions in your proposal draft. You may even find that writing a proposal goes from a painful chore to a fun part of helping your customers. (If this transformation can happen to me, it can happen to anyone!)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote: “One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.” Fortunately, you already have the first paragraph. It’s what the prospect said when you asked “why is it so important to do this and to do it now?”

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