Marry Me, Maybe? (How Not to Write Proposals)
10 March, 2022
The suitor gets on one knee and opens a small box to reveal a diamond ring. “I was just thinking that perhaps a sort of thing that might be suitable for us to do at some future point would be on the order of an arrangement such as a contract of marriage…”
There are only two situations in which that proposal is going to be effective:
- A partner who is going to say “yes” no matter how you phrase it.
- A romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant.
Those of us writing business proposals can’t rely on a Hollywood ending. Bid documents require the art of persuasion. That’s more of a challenge for many of us than we would like it to be. So if you’re more concerned about huge grants than Hugh Grant, here are some things to watch out for when writing proposals, bids, and other pieces designed to sell your company to clients.
Are You Trying or Doing?
“Do. Or do not,” said Yoda. “There is no try.” But very often proposals use words that indicate no certainty of success:
- believe—Oh, so you don’t know for sure?
- feel—Hmm, so this isn’t about facts, then.
- think—Call me when you know for sure.
- want—Well, don’t we all. I want a million dollars and world peace too.
- intend—Do you remember what the road to hell is paved with?
- attempt—This word is practically married to failed, they’re seen together so often.
- strive—I can hear you grunting from over here. I want someone who does it and makes it look easy.
- may—Then again, it may not. I’ll wait for June.
- might—Like may but even more strained. Might makes “uh, right?”
- could—Coulda, shoulda, woulda…
Of course, there are compliance issues. You may be required to say “attempt” to ensure that you haven’t entered into an agreement where there is uncertainty. But ask yourself: Are you using words because you have to or because you haven’t considered how they will be read?
I Would If I Could?
You may want to write in terms of “would” and “could” because you’re only proposing doing something. But when you write a bid document using the conditional, you remind the prospective client that it’s just a maybe, and you communicate a lack of certainty. To see the impact that has on readers, compare:
“To enhance SquengeCorp’s revenue stream, we would implement our Infinity Growth Program, which would channel users to further services at every decision point.”
“To enhance SquengeCorp’s revenue stream, we will implement our Infinity Growth Program, which will channel users…”
Better yet, since the future is never guaranteed, see if you can present it as an existing reality: “Our Infinity Growth Program channels your users to further services at every decision point.”
Who Are You Talking To?
Did you notice the shift from “SquengeCorp” to “you” in the last example above? You’re talking to people. Involve them directly. Imagine if a salesperson—or a suitor!—referred to you in the third person: would you find it easier to walk away? Reach out to the people you’re talking to and take them by the hand (figuratively!).
Are These Your Action Figures?
Business writing has a tendency to take verbs and freeze them into nouns—tends becomes has a tendency, for instance. Instead of leaping into action, it’s like presenting a little plastic action figure frozen in mid-leap. Bring them to life:
- maintain production of → produce
- undertake the construction of → build
- have an understanding → understand
Show Me the Details!
Would you rather sit down for dinner to “an ideal hunger solution” or “a heaping plate of al dente linguine melded with a rich sauce of tomatoes, garlic, basil, and pancetta, showered with aged parmigiana”? Too much business writing sounds like the former.
Instead of we have an understanding of your business or even we understand your business, show that you understand. Talk about details. Focus on what the people you’re talking to want and on the things they see as keeping them from getting that. Everyone has “solutions”—heck, supply rooms and liquor cabinets are full of them. What kind of solutions, with what benefits? Be specific.
Everyone Knows BS Is BS.
There are some words and phrases that not-very-good salespeople fall back on again and again: world class, uniquely placed, state-of-the-art, global leaders, premium, best in class. This is like starting a high school essay with “From time immemorial, philosophers have considered the question of…” Do you really think you’re fooling anyone?
Decision makers who will decide the fate of your bid have seen this kind of blather hundreds of times. It’s just Boastful Stuffing—that’s BS for short. If you’re so great, prove it.
Don’t Keep Them at Arm’s Length.
When you’re in an uncertain situation with someone, you naturally want to keep them at arm’s length. And so you use words as long as your arm: ascertain instead of learn; enumerate instead of list; illustrate instead of show; utilize instead of use… All of these words say “Hey! Whoa, buddy! Don’t get too close!” But you’re trying to develop a relationship here. You need to open up, be friendly, be a little more relaxed. Don’t hold that diamond ring on the end of a stick. Use the short, friendly word.
Don’t Say Things You Don’t Need to Say.
Needless to say, this goes without saying. It also bears mentioning that you don’t need to point out what bears mentioning—you just need to mention it.
Ditch the Packing Popcorn.
Packing popcorn is those bits of foam that expensive items sometimes come shipped in. You dig your treasure out, and then you have a thousand little pieces of staticky, squeaky, environmental disaster that you need to get rid of. But at least that stuff has served a useful purpose. Now imagine going to a store and having them dump a bunch of it into your bag with every purchase: annoying and useless too. This is what you’re doing when you use little words that add no real meaning but help you feel more protected.
There are two general kinds of verbal packing popcorn: redundant words and inert filler.
One of the words in these common turns of phrase is part of the definition of the other one. Delete it.
- absolutely certain
- actual fact
- added bonus
- advance notice
- advanced planning
- close proximity
- collaborate together
- consensus of opinion
- continue on
- depreciate in value
- end result
- enter in
- final outcome
- future plans
- general consensus
- might possibly
- moment in time
- potential risk
- the present time
Keep an eye out for other examples too.
These are what Benjamin Dreyer calls “wan intensifiers.” Much of the time, you can get rid of them; the rest of the time, you can use something stronger. The only reason you put them there in the first place was to make yourself feel a little more secure. Ironically, it makes you look insecure.
- in fact
Remember: Brevity is the soul of wit. Few people have ever sold anything to anyone by boring them. Keep your wording tight. Your prospective client is a busy person.
Add an Electric Eye.
If you’re crafting a marriage proposal, it’s okay to stumble and get a word wrong here or there. Your partner will probably find it cute. However, in business documents, there are a lot more words to keep an eye out for. And instead of one proposal for a lifetime, bid writers work on dozens every year. That’s why it makes sense to use electronic checking to ensure you catch as many of these issues as possible. In PerfectIt™ for Microsoft Word, you can build in the words and phrases you want to make sure you catch. Then you can apply your own considered judgment to each instance.
If you don’t already have PerfectIt, click to get a free trial.