Proposal writing is an art, and it's one that many companies are not very good at. It took me a long time to learn how to write a concise and persuasive proposal - even though my background is writing.
So here's my advice:
1. Tell them something they don't know about their businesses. We all get swallowed by our own industries and need a fresh perspective. The Internet is a fabulous tool for learning more about your prospective client. Don't just look at its Web site - check out what their competitors, media and blogs are saying about them.
For instance, in a recent proposal to a health care association, I typed in What is a THEIR SPECIALTY? onto their Web site's search engine. And stumped them. Other stakeholders also couldn't answer the question. So I was able to tie my communications services to a needs assessment and got the work.
2. Call them and ask questions. Even the best RFPs need clarification. Create a short list of questions and call the person listed on the proposal as a contact. Make nice with them, without taking up too much of their time. Get them to talk about their challenges as they answer your questions. The benefit: When your proposal hits their desk, they will remember you.
3. Treat the proposal like its your first week on the job. Many companies use generic proposal templates and fill in the blanks, adding a few customized thoughts to make it seem special. Consultants hate giving out free advice. But if you cannot demonstrate how you will do the work - you sound just like everyone else. So treat the proposal like you've already been hired. Tell them more than you usually do. It will get their attention and make you stand out.
4. Create a provocative and value driven title. You must demonstrate creativity even in industries that aren't very exciting. Most proposals use basic titles with the company's name plugged in. PR firms often use titles like "Raising the Visibility of Xs New Widget," or "Helping X Enter the Emerging X Market." I'm sleeping folks. A proposal we submitted recently used a stage with a curtain drawn back and the heading "Taking Center Stage, Showcasing the Work of X." That worked.
5. Your proposal cover is the first thing prospective clients see. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it shouldn't look like your kid's report cover either. Use a graphic designer, even if it's your teenager who has a flair for design. Use strong, vibrant colors and an intriguing typeface. And spiral bind everything if it's printed - it's inexpensive and looks far more professional.
6. No typos ever. This may sound obvious but you'd be amazed how many proposals go out the door with typos and even the name of the company or senior executive spelled wrong. Very bad. It shows you are sloppy at best, and that you really don't care. Proofread - double check numbers, references, headlines and text. If you want to be on on the A-list, you must demonstrate you belong there.