Hit the Mark with the Right Proposal Format

Writing a project proposal is stressful. You invest time and brainpower for a chance to win. You want every advantage possible. Your business may stack up equally to competitors in all other areas, but if your proposal format is lacking style and tact, you may be tossed to the side.

Keep your content focused on your client’s problem and your solution, and use your proposal’s format to impress.

You are being judged by the quality of your proposal. You need to communicate that you understand the problem, your solution, and justify the price. In addition, you need to communicate what makes you unique while also building trust. This is a lot to communicate to people who barely know you — or don’t know you at all.

First impressions sometimes lead to cruel fates. Studies show that in the first few seconds of human interaction affect lifelong judgements — learn about the psychology of how we judge strangers.

This happens in job interviews, when choosing a grocery checker, or when picking teams in elementary schools. Sometimes the judgments are true, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they change, sometimes they don’t. What’s frustrating is that you can’t stop the other person in those first few moments of interaction, and say “hey, wait, I know what you’re thinking, but I’m actually really cool”.

This is even more difficult when snap judgments are in comparison to others, like when clients ask for project proposals from several different agencies.

Although you’ve had more than one interaction with your client prior to organizing your proposal, this is the first time your agency has a chance to prove your communication skills in writing. However, unlike when you’re lined up in your elementary school gym and the class bully is the team captain, with project proposals you have the power to curate the first impression.

So don’t get too down about feeling out of control of what the client thinks of you. Practice makes perfect. Organizing your proposal format in advance boosts your chances of winning the client over.

The Purpose of a Project Proposal 

In our last article on project proposals, we outlined the importance of communicating your understanding of the client’s problem. A project proposal is not a platform for self aggrandizement. It is where you prove you listened to your client’s needs. Creativity is collaborative, not a one way street to let your talent flag fly. Clearly articulating the client’s goals is more impressive than attaching your creative team’s portfolio to a timeline.

You are a leg above the competition if your project proposal:

  1. Shows how well you know your client’s needs.
  2. Proves that your work will have a high ROI for the client.

There is a place to apply creativity directly to your client before the project begins, and that is the creative brief. In the creative brief, you can talk about color schemes, ad designs, and slogans. You can talk to your creative team to get the low-down the project planning process and talk about the first steps of design.

But for the project proposals, you need to focus on articulating goals.

Everything in it’s place and polished to shine.

No one really goes and gets their shoes shined anymore. You see those shoe shine stations around, but you hardly ever see any customers. Like at airports, shoppings mall, and on Parks and Rec. Still, to those people who still get your shoes shined: you look amazing. A little extra time and money spent polishing your appearance always pays off.

Think of your proposal format the same way. You can slap together content, or you can shine it up with nice formatting. There are the basics of grammar, spelling, and math. Those are easy to accomplish. Style, however, is what will really help you shine. Pay attention to your:

Writing Style. Your goal is to write how people want to read. Your writing style isn’t your personal preference, and it is not how you talk. Make your writing fun to read. Break up your words with headers and lists. Keep your sentences short, and find ways to replace words with punctuation.

Structure. Make sure you include the right things, and in the right order. You are writing with a purpose, and no one has to read what you write. You need to be engaging and persuasive. One more time…no one has to hire you.

Typography. Your proposal is mostly text. If you want to have a great proposal format you need to pay attention to your text. At a minimum read typography in 10 minutes. However, if you write a lot of proposals you should be regularly reading, practicaltypography.com.

Branding. Don’t over do it, but people should know that this is your proposal. Leverage more than your logo, use colors and typography. Try Adobe Color to find colors that work with your logo design.

Design. Customize your proposal format for the selection process. If it is group decision include page numbers for reference. Design for print if the selection will be made at a meeting. Go the extra mile and mail a couple hard copies, and create a slide deck version. Format your proposal like a magazine — highlights followed by in depth content — if it will be sent out for silent deliberation. ?

Proposal Design Shortcuts.

There is no replacement for a great designer. However if you aren’t lucky enough to have a designer on your team, here are some design shortcuts you can use to create a winning proposal format:

Buy a Font. This gives your proposal a little something special. Most people won’t know what is different, but they will notice that your proposal looks different. Think: Malcolm Gladwell. This je ne sais quoi can be just the edge you need. You should checkout this description of the 30 best serif fonts. Make sure to read Butterick’s Practical Typography: your reference for all things typographical.

Increase your Font Size. You have a great new font — now go big. Show it off! I design a lot with 20pt, 30pt, and 40pt fonts. This has two benefits: speed and distinctiveness. I can remember it, and it is immediately clear it isn’t 12pt Times New Roman — bleh.

Pay Attention to Spacing. Typewriters made us lazy. They locked us in, and we forgot how to layout a page. We now rely on Mircosoft Office defaults, and double tapping Enter/Return to create spaces. To create a winning proposal format you need control — upgrade to InDesign. InDesign for $19.99 a month will allow you to get everything in the right place. Here is a very logical shortcut for laying out your proposal format:

  • Sub-headlines and paragraphs 0.0625 inches (4.5 px)
  • Paragraphs and Lists .125 inches (9px)
  • Sections .5 inches (18px)
  • Don’t just double tap Enter/Return

Photos. You don’t always have time and money to have original photos for each proposal. I recommend maintaining a library of photos of team members, your office, and your clients. Get a mix of headshots, portraits, and environmental shots. This will give you a lot of options, and help you establish your visual style. You can expand these with stock photos.

  • Flow. We naturally look at other people’s eyes and follow their gaze. You want the people in your photos to be looking where you want your readers to focus.
  • Visual Tension. Most stock photos leave little the the imagination — showing a visually balanced picture. You don’t have to show the whole picture. Crop your photos to create visual tension. They will be more interesting. The trick is to use high resolution photos, and then cropping them to only use some of the photo.
  • Perspective. Photos are more interesting if there is depth or perceived motion. Look for photos that have a foreground, subject, and background.

Design. You will get really far with great typography and a layout. However, you can take things next level by paying attention to color, depth, and shape. Keep in mind these are design shortcuts. I recommend Vanseo Design’s writings for more principles of graphic design.

  • Depth. Depth enhances your design’s organization and and provides subtle signals. Create depth with drop shadows. Depth is created when an element passes in front of another. I recommend that each new layer gets a 1px drop shadow. This will allow you to visually organize your layout on three axises: X,Y, and Z.
  • Color. I recommend developing a palette of colors based on your brand. Adobe Color is a free tool for finding colors based on your brand. I like to create a palette with 3 vertical columns and 2 horizontal rows each with 5 swatches. Make swatches 100 by 100 px, and include text for HEX and RGB values. Use one vertical column for backgrounds, one for text colors, and one for 5 monochromatic variations of my logo color. Use the top horizontal row for complimentary colors, and the bottom row for one lighter shade of each color.
  • Shape. You can make your designs more professional by adding subtle curves to the borders of text boxes, buttons, and text highlights. Be subtle round corners by 5px — just enough to be interesting. Keep you illustrations focused on what is most important. Find one idea that represents your idea. Use patterns to add balance and interest to backgrounds. Repeat a simple shape over a solid background. This is an opportunity to play with subtle colors, shades, and opacities.

Download this Free Proposal Template

This is my favorite proposal format. It is from Contemporary Analysis (CAN). Bric and CAN are close because we share a co-founder — Grant Stanley. CAN is where Grant came up with the idea for Bric. In fact, Grant sold CAN so he could focus 100% on Bric.

Download Template for InDesign

CAN works with businesses to find patterns in their data. It is complicated work, and difficult to explain. They have worked hard to carefully hone their brand and proposal process. Thankfully they are letting us share what they have learned since 2008.

Let’s look at a proposal CAN created for “Stanley Construction”. This proposal is based on a  project that CAN won for a major construction company — not actually called “Stanley Construction”.

Let’s breakdown CAN’s proposal section-by-section.

The Cover Page

The title shouldn’t just be the name of the client. Make it specific by naming part of the goal in the title. In this case, Stanley Construction wanted CAN to run predictive analytics on their employees. Hence “Employee Evaluation”.

Don’t just include the client name + project. Be descriptive. Show that you understand the problem you are solving.

Pro-tip: Include names, addresses, and contact information. You don’t know who will read your proposal. You want to make sure they know who to talk to about the proposal — both internally and externally. With this information on the cover they won’t have to wonder.

Project Objectives

In this section you detail the purpose of the project. You outline the problem, and the desired outcomes. Save details about specific deliverables until the next section.

CAN keeps their objective simple, focusing on the goals expressed by the client. The client wants to evaluate their employee’s performance, so CAN breaks down factors of employee performance and digests them into data goals. Short, simple, too the point.

Project Deliverables

The “Deliverables” section is more specific than the “Objective” section. Here, CAN lists three bulleted questions whose answers can be measured in Tableau (data visualization software). These questions, unlike the goals listed in the “Objectives” section, are more specific. They reflect questions that will be answered in detail if and when Stanley Construction hires CAN. 

Note the asterisks. Remember, project proposals are written after a handful of initial conversations, but before hire and signing a contract. CAN keeps the goals limited to three, but notes that these are subject to change upon further knowledge of the company.

Materials

In CAN’s proposal format, they call this section “Data Sources.” Both titles refer to the same idea: what information needs gathering before the project begins?

CAN states that they plan on gathering data from SCOR, but also from outside research. This section is all about listing what you need to start the project. 

Since creative work requires collaboration, this section may include a list of people your project planning team plans to interview to collect information, or documents that your team plans to read to brush up on the client’s history.

CAN keeps this section broad and not binding in its terms. Again, the CAN’s knowledge of SCOR at this point is still developing. 

Project Schedule

It is extremely important to lay out timeline expectations when you write a project proposal. When neither parties sign off and agree on deadlines, there are risks. For instance, if your creative agency needs a deadline extension, you need a document to hold yourself accountable. Inversely, if the client doesn’t pay you after the project is complete, you can use the proposal to remind them of their agreement.  

This part of CAN’s proposal format really shines. A lot of other companies may see the “Project Schedule” section as a chance to be vague and hopeful. They want to make it seem like they’ll get the project done on time, but don’t back their claims with detail. Here, CAN proves itself the opposite of lazy with step-by-step timeline and communication goals aligned with project milestones.

Note that CAN has a clause about weekly meetings. CAN sees weekly meeting as a way to prevent projects and budgets getting off track. This may also be an advantageous clause for creative agencies, as there can be many people working on the same project with little communication. Softwares like Bric, Trello and Basecamp help with online communication and project management.

Overview of Costs 

For a creative agency, this section may depend on the size of the firm. You may charge the same amount for all your employees, or you may have different rates based on education levels and experience. Perhaps this is something you need to talk over with the client before printing it. Use your discretion here, but keep in mind that publishing your fees means the client is more likely to trust you. For advice of what to charge for your work, click here.

CAN hits the sweet spot in this section. CAN gives SCOR an idea of what to expect with final cost and total time, but they’re smart about it. They make it clear that the numbers are just an estimate. The prices listed are mainly reference purposes.

Although just an estimate, it is not to your advantage to lie, or under-pitch the cost. If they choose you and the price tag ends up considerably higher, you will cause harm to the collaboration between you and the client. They will also most likely write bad reviews for you on the internet.

Payment Terms

Payment terms are something that should be consistent across all clients. Honesty works to your advantage in the world of competitive businesses.

Despite CAN’s statement that the monetary values are just estimates, they are firm in their payment terms. This is important. It shows SCOR that CAN isn’t interested in negotiations. Perhaps some big, bold fonts here?

About Us

CAN uses this page for many purposes. They attach it to ebooks, case studies, grants, and more. A one-page, bite-sized summary of your company will serve you many purposes. Including it at the end of their proposal format is like putting a smiley face at the end of the term paper. It says, “We take our work seriously, but we’re also trying to help you boost your business.” Investing in a well-written “About Us” page with nice fonts, logos, and graphics can boost the reach of your business.

Terms and Conditions

CAN hired a lawyer to help them with this page. Unlike the previous section, this page is all business. It answers important questions about rights of the finished product, confidentiality, and termination. It’s good to include this at the end like CAN did. It can be a downer.

Ready to Start Writing?

You don’t have the time or money to create a new proposal format for each project. Designing a proposal format should be one of the first tasks of an agency owner. You are already working on your brand, website, and legal paperwork — all things required to create a standard proposal format.

Once you have defined your proposal format, you have 3 choices when it comes to choosing who will write your project proposal.

  1. Someone in your agency. This person must be briefed on the initial conversations with the client to keep the proposal client-centered. It would also be best if this person has knowledge of previous project proposals, a grasp of of the agency’s financial state, and is a good writer. Is there someone who meets these qualifications on your team?
  2. A contracted copywriter. If you don’t have on in your agency already, you could find a local copywriter via LinkedIn. Other websites, like Fiverr, give you access to rated profilers of all sorts of freelance creative services. If you choose someone with good ratings, they often produce work timely, professionally, and at a fair price.
  3. An online proposal format software. A quick google search can bring up hundreds of these online softwares. In our previous article on project planning, we reviewed some of these services.

Writing a project proposal is about nailing it, scoring, winning, or whatever sort of sports-related metaphor you like. The point is that project proposals are competitive. It can be overwhelming to know that you’re competing with proposals you won’t ever read, which is why researching the many tips and tricks of proposal format is to your agency’s advantage.

Close your eyes and imagine the class bully, or your competitor in your underwear. Or just follow our advice. We hope this article gives you the confidence boost you need to outline a winning proposal format. 

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