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How to Write a Proposal That Clients Can’t Say “No” To

By 23/09/2019 September 24th, 2019 No Comments

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As a project manager, knowing how to write a project proposal is a key skill.

Few documents are more important. No matter how great a project idea may be, it’ll never see the light of day unless it gets approved.

After reading this article, you’ll be able to write a proposal that no client can turn down.

What is a Project Proposal?

A project proposal is a document (often accompanied by a presentation) that demonstrates why your project is the right one for the client. The proposal happens before the project begins, usually after a series of conversations between you and the client. Sometimes you’ll be responding to a request for proposal (RFP) in which you’ll be competing with other organizations for your prospective clients attention.

Main Elements Of A Project Proposal

Whether you’re formally placing a bid for the project, or simply sending a proposal to confirm details, there are a few elements that every proposal should have.

  1. Client’s info
  2. Client’s problem
  3. Your solution that addresses the client’s problem
  4. Proposed budget and timeline
  5. Why you’re the best choice for the project

What Is A Project Proposal For?

A project proposal is a vital document that’ll be referred to throughout the project, keeping you safe from scope creep, and satisfying the client that their expectations are being met. It provides the skeleton for the project, listing the project’s goals, how they’ll be achieved, how much it will cost, and how long it will take.

It also presents an opportunity for you to prove to the client that, if they want their problem solved effectively, you’re their best choice.

A Basic Project Proposal Process

A basic project proposal process starts with conversations with a prospective client, then planning the proposal, writing the proposal, reviewing it internally with your team or stakeholders, and finally, presenting the proposal.

While a proposal format can be a document, it can also be accompanied by a pitch deck or slideshow that helps you present your proposal to a potential client in an engaging way.

Project Proposal Templates

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Your first course of action could be to repurpose proposals from your business’ previous projects. You can also find project proposal templates as well as a handful of useful project proposal tools that jumpstart the process.

Most text editors, including Google Docs, have a basic, easy to follow, and free project proposal template. The free Google Docs template can be personalized to include company logos and images, and customized to suit individual needs.

We also offer our own simple project proposal template for our Pro Members to follow. No need to waste time coming up with an outline—we’ve taken care of it for you! All you need to do is fill out the details below each heading. We even provide a project proposal sample to make it easy for our Pro members to get an idea of how the final product should look.

DPM offers project proposal templates for Pro Members.

A screenshot from our DPM Project Proposal Template.

Click the links below to download our project proposal template and sample!

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A lot of business proposal software provides more advanced templates—check out a few of the tools below.

Project Proposal Tools

Here’s a list of some useful project proposal software—these are some of the best proposal tools for writing proposals quickly and managing the approval process.  These offer much more functionality than a simple proposal template, designed to help sales and account management teams respond to RFPs, create quotes, and manage approvals and contracts.

  1. Qwilr – Online proposal software that integrates with CRMs offering a proposal builder, template library, and tools to manage quotes, sales docs, sign-offs, and payments.
  2. Proposify – Document automation software to help you create and track proposals, quotes, and contracts as well as sign documents online.
  3. Loopio – An RFP response software to centralize and automate responses to RFPs, DDQs, and Security Questionnaires.
  4. PandaDoc – Software to manage and create quotes, proposals, contracts, and e-signatures with useful KPI dashboards and out-of-the box integrations.
  5. Proposable – Smart proposal software with popular CRM integrations and an intuitive drag-and-drop proposal builder.
  6. Bidsketch – Proposal software designed to save time and headache with templates, automated follow-ups, built-in electronic signatures and real-time analytics.
  7. RFPIO – RFP automation software with plenty of business tool integrations, auto-responses, and reports, tied together with a clean, user-friendly design.
  8. Better Proposals – A simple, easy-to-learn tool with an Automatic Designer, 100+ templates, and smart follow-ups to help you create better business proposals.
  9. InDesign – Adobe’s tool for designing documents, with access to a library of professional business proposal layouts and templates plus advanced design tools.
  10. GetAccept – All-in-one platform to streamline sales engagement (including chat, video, and SMS) contract management, proposals and quotes, and procurement.
  11. Conga Collaborate – Document collaboration software to create, share, and track business documents with a doc builder, real-time analytics, and workflows.
  12. Venngage – An online design software with dozens of customizable proposal templates as well as tools to create reports, charts and other visualizations.
  13. Nusii – Beautiful, simple proposal software to help you create professional proposals along with tools for proposal tracking, automation, and online signatures.
  14. Osmosis – Simple software designed to streamline the proposal process with custom branding, proposal templates, document signing, and an activity steam for updates.

Regardless of whether you use business proposal software, you still need to know how to write a proposal. See the next section for what to include in a proposal and how to write one.

Project Proposal Examples

Here’s a project proposal from one of the biggest companies in the world, PriceWaterhouseCoppers (PwC). Let’s take a look at how they follow a simple strategy to win their proposals. The PwC proposal is 49 pages long, so I’ve pulled out some highlights below.

5 Easy Takeaways from the PwC Proposal

  1. An engaging executive summary that demonstrates clear knowledge of the problem at hand.
  2. An overview of how you plan to solve the problem and a breakdown of how that plan will unfold.
  3. Several justifications for scope of work to protect against scope creep.
  4. A detailed budget that’s outlined separately from the proposed plan.
  5. An about us section that shows your past experience.

1. Executive Summary Example

In this example, PwC is writing a proposal to the New Jersey Department of Health Services.

From the very first sentence, PwC lays out the problem the Department of Health Services is facing: Superstorm Sandy destroyed infrastructure, ruined business, and caused a considerable loss of life.

How to write a proposal executive summary example.

It goes into more detail about the problem to illustrate their understanding:

How to write a proposal executive summary screenshot.

And finally, they give a basic explanation of the solution that their proposal will present.

PwC explains in detail the client's problem.

Note here that they also mention why they’re a good fit for the project—they state in the beginning of the paragraph, “As the world’s leading auditing firm[…]”.

Key takeaway from this executive summary example

The executive summary is:

  • informative
  • complete
  • concise

It explains:

  • the parties involved
  • the problem
  • the solution
  • why the proposal is called for in the first place

This is something every proposal writer should strive to do with their executive summary—give them enough to chew on, but not the whole meal.

2. Scope of Work Example

In this section of PwC’s proposal, they go into great detail about what the project will involve.

First, there’s an overview laying out the steps they plan on taking and the timeline. Following this overview, each week has two pages dedicated to explaining what they’ll be working on.

How to write a proposal scope of work example screenshot.

3. Budget Example

PwC keeps their budget page very simple: a spreadsheet detailing:

  • the team members
  • their role
  • the number of hours they’re expected to work on the project
  • how much it’ll cost

How to write a proposal pricing and budget example screenshot.

4. “About Us” Section Example

In this example, the “About Us”  section is broken into two separate parts: qualifications and resumes. These provide further evidence that PwC is the best choice for the project and they also justify the cost of their team by illustrating past successes and reputation. In a proposal for a smaller company, these can be combined into one section.

How to write a proposal qualifications example screenshot.

An example from PwC of a company’s introduction.

Although PwC is a multinational firm that manages projects worth millions of dollars, they still follow a simple template to writing their proposals. Any project manager looking to write a project proposal can follow their example.  Now that you’ve seen an example, here are the basic steps for both planning and writing a project proposal.

How To Plan A Proposal

1. Make Notes About Your Audience

Your proposal shouldn’t surprise your audience—which is your client. Instead, it should be the natural result of a series of ongoing conversations. Gather and consolidate your notes from these conversations (meetings, emails, etc) so you have an idea of their subject knowledge, available budget, and timelines.

Expert tip:

Before you begin, make sure the client has:

  • the budget
  • time
  • desire to move forward

As a rule of thumb, if you don’t know these details, you’re not ready for a proposal yet.

2. Determine A Budget and Schedule Estimate

A full explanation of cost estimation and scheduling your project goes beyond the scope of this article, so if you’re having trouble estimating how much the project will cost, try our cost estimation guide.

It’s also helpful to schedule resources with software that can model what-if scenarios in advance, so you don’t find yourself bottlenecked by scarce resources once the project starts.

3. Make a Project Proposal Outline

This won’t be included in your proposal, but it’ll help you stay on track while writing. Your outline doesn’t need to be any longer than a single paragraph. Simply lay out:

  • the problem
  • how you’ll solve it
  • why your way is the best
  • a conclusion

Once your thoughts are organized, you can start to write your proposal.

How To Write A Proposal

1. Create A Cover Page

Your project proposal should have a cover page. Let it act as a palette cleanser, allowing your client to get in the right headspace for reading your proposal, rather than being greeted by a page of text.  It should be simple and include the project you’re bidding for.

Take a look at this simple proposal cover page I created.

A sample of a cover page for a project proposal.

2. Write An Executive Statement

Start with a strong introduction. You want to captivate your reader from the first sentence. Here’s the first sentence from PwC’s executive summary:

“Last October, the State of New Jersey experienced unprecedented damaging effects from Superstorm Sandy – from loss of life, destroyed infrastructure, damaged homes, and loss of business.”

Strong, clear writing that gets straight to the point.

Here’s an example from our sample proposal. It gives a strong overview of the project.

The proposal sample's proposed approach screenshot.

An excerpt from our sample’s proposed approach.

Impress your client by mentioning all the research you’ve done while building the proposal. By doing this you’ll accomplish two important things. First, you’ll demonstrate your knowledge and expertise in the area, and secondly, you’ll show that you care about their business.

You want this section to be short, yet dense. Evaluate every sentence and make sure it’s as short as possible and moves the summary along. Geoffrey James recommends one sentence to describe the problem and one sentence to describe the outcome. Don’t provide background information or context—save that for the next section.

3. Describe Your Deliverables and Strategy

This is the meat of your proposal. Here you’ll provide context for the problems you’re going to solve.The strategy shows that you’ve identified the problem and have created the ideal solution. It’ll be a broad description of the overall plan.

The deliverables section is where you get down to the nitty-gritty. Breakdown your proposal into different sections such as:

  • design
  • development
  • implementation

and list the specific deliverables for each. Explain the importance of each deliverable in relation to the overall project, as well as how much time it’s estimated to take. It’s okay if this part gets a bit lengthy. It’s supposed to give your client a clear idea of the project moving forwards. Here’s an example from our proposal sample. This is from the subsection that details the plans of week 0.

The proposal sample's phase one strategy approach screenshot.

An example of a project’s discovery phase.

You can use graphs, spreadsheets and sidebars to get all the information you need across to your client. When writing the deliverables and strategy section of your project proposal, don’t focus too much on the length. The question you should ask yourself is “am I getting my plan across?”

It can be important to list what’s not included, too. Doing so will protect you from scope creep, as well as give the client some inspiration for additional services. As a project manager, the last thing you want is the client wondering why certain expectations were not met. Having a section that outlines exactly what you are doing will save you plenty of headaches.

Avoid using any technical jargon the client may be unfamiliar with. By the end, your client should have a clear understanding of what you’re proposing and how you plan to implement your strategy, and how long it will take.

4. Include A Project Summary

  • Itemize your deliverables and include a price for each.
  • Be transparent and firm.
  • Don’t allow the client to pick and choose which services they want, or negotiate a lower price for certain items.

You’ve provided them with a strong plan for what needs to be done, and now you’re telling them how much it will cost. If you wish, you may include a budget summary below where you comment and justify that cost. There are parts of your proposal where you can be flexible, cost is not one of them. The last thing you want is to find yourself in a position where you’re allowing yourself to be lowballed.

5. Add An “About Us” Section

  • Re-affirm your knowledge and expertise.
  • Mention any previous work you’ve done in related industries or areas.

There are two things to accomplish with this section. The first is:

  • To inject the human element into your proposal. Talk about yourself and your team, providing a bit of background information.

The second is:

  • To show off your previous achievements, and why those achievements will help them.

Remember, the proposal is for your client, so even when you’re talking about yourself, you’re doing so to show why you’re the best choice for the project.

6. Proofread Your Proposal

How you say something is as important as what you say. Avoid using fluffy words (for example,  “innovating”, “bleeding-edge”, “game-changing”, “optimize”). They don’t mean anything.

Instead, break your paragraphs into short sentences, and use strong, meaningful verbs (for example, “increase by”, “decrease by”, “eliminate” “convert into” “replace with”).

Here’s a simple project proposal checklist to make sure you’ve proofread well:

  • I have an engaging executive summary
  • I directly address their problem and have a persuasive solution
  • I separate the price from the deliverables
  • I avoid fluffy words and technical jargon
  • I  use short sentences and strong verbs

By following this guide, you’ll win your proposal and it’ll be time to move on to the next step: project initiation.

But before you do…

Expert Advice: How to Make Your Project Proposal Stand Out

Write a captivating executive summary

Jason Swenk, who boasts an impressive 80% acceptance rate on his proposals, believes that your executive summary should do more than just summarize what the proposal says.

Don’t bury your budget in the deliverables

Swenk also recommends separating pricing from the deliverables section of your proposal. Talking about price can be uncomfortable, but it deserves its own section. By sneaking it in next to the deliverables, you’ll be pulling the clients focus away from what you can do for them. You want the client imagining what you can achieve together, not how much of their budget you cost.

Prove your worth to your client with past successes

Business coach, Nathan Ingram, says proposals do not include “spec” work.  “You would never mock up a homepage for a client before they paid you, right?” If a client wants proof of your competency, provide examples and references instead.

Put a price tag on your client’s problem

Be persuasive. At a 2009, Project Management Institute conference, Eddie Merla said that,  “sometimes the concept may be properly stated but the justification for the project is weak.” You need to build a compelling argument to move forward with the project. One way to solve this problem is to attach a price to the problem. Clients will be far more compelled to move forward if they believe the current problem is costing them money.

How Do You Write Project Proposals?

Project proposals can be tough. A lot of work and research goes into them before the first word is ever written. Having a strategy and template in place can make the whole process easier.

What templates, tools, and skills do you use when writing your project proposals? Share in the comments below.

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Ben Aston

Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedigitalprojectmanager.com. I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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