Why do proposals fail? One reason is they struggle to communicate a clear understanding of the client’s problem. When your proposal fails to communicate a clear understanding of the client’s problem, it will struggle to communicate a valuable solution.
Quality proposals use story to clearly communicate their point; we understand and empathize with your challenge and we have the best solution to achieve your goals. Bottom line – through proposal story, you clearly become an asset, not a risk.
How do you construct a proposal story? What’s the difference between proposal story and proposal narrative? How can you use both to engage evaluators? How does story help proposal teams write a more informed first draft? That’s what we’ll explore in this blog on proposal writing.
Throughout human history, as new technology eclipsed old, we have continued to tell stories. Yes, they are used to entertain, but they are also used to help us explain abstract concepts and make them more accessible.
Story vs Narrative
Unlike Other business writing, such as documentation that is designed to inform and instruct, proposals are designed to persuade. How do story and narrative work together to engage and persuade evaluators?
The proposal Story is a description of the people and events. Think The Lord of the Rings; the fate of civilization rests on the One Ring.
The proposal Narrative is an account of a series of events. For example, in The Lord of the Rings we follow Frodo through a series of events that lead to the destruction of the One Ring.
A well-crafted proposal story engages evaluators, sparking their curiosity, emotions and imagination. A well-crafted proposal narrative helps evaluators make sense of their world, cultivating understanding and connection. Together, they establish a framework for clearly communicating your understanding of the client’s challenge and persuading evaluators to consider the value of your solution.
In this first blog we’ll explore proposal story.
How Win Themes Inform your Proposal Story
Win theme(s) are your proposition; the high-level reason(s) why the evaluator should consider your solution. As the proposal’s central message, one or two Win Theme(s) subtly echo throughout your proposal, reminding evaluators about the benefits of your value proposition. For example, as the evaluator reads and scores your proposal, Win Themes remind them:
We understand, and sympathize, with your challenges, goals and concerns.
Our solutions features address your challenges, goals and concerns.
Our solution delivers benefits and evidence of these benefits that you care about.
Our solution stands out from the competition, and here’s how.
Weaving Win Themes throughout your proposal story helps engage evaluators by sparking curiosity and imagination. They remind them of your value proposition while enticing them to imagine their world and how your solution helps them overcome their challenge and concerns. Win Theme(s), however, require a framework to help evaluators clearly and easily connect the dots between their challenges, goals, and concerns and your solution. That’s where proposal story comes in.
Craft your Proposal Story
Storytelling in proposal writing works the same way as creative storytelling. Your client is the protagonist. They face a challenge and they must make a choice. That choice will reflect on their ability to lead positive, effective change for their business, their employees and their clients or constituents.
As with any engaging read, you’ll need three elements:
Setup. The Setup sets the stage for what the client’s business looks like right now; current process, structure, and systems. Perhaps the client has a legacy system that is no longer supported. The Setup demonstrates your understanding of their current state.
Conflict. The Conflict embodies the challenges they are experiencing in their current Setup. Perhaps there is a mandate to improve constituent services they cannot achieve with existing technology. The Conflict demonstrates your empathy with their challenges and your understanding of their goals. It also lays the groundwork that connects the dots to your Resolution.
Resolution. The Resolution presents your company as the best solution to their Conflict, i.e., how great your Resolution will make their business. Adding proof elevates your solution above the competition.
Think about it this way: Setup is the client’s reality, Conflict represents what has changed that reality, and Resolution is the new reality that change creates. With proposal story, you create the overarching framework. With proposal narrative, which we will explore in our next Blog, you’ll construct the pillars this framework stands on. Together, they will make it easier for evaluators to follow your line of reasoning, accept your proposition and score accordingly.
Brainstorming for Story
Crafting a unique proposal story is not always an easy task, especially when you’re selling the same Resolution to the same Setup and Conflict but for different clients. That’s where the details of your client-specific Win Strategy plays a key role in this process. Without those client-specific details, you’re just rinsing and repeating, and not creating the “best seller” that helps your proposal stand-out from the competition.
If your goal is to write a quality proposal that resonates with evaluators, there are many different brainstorming methods that can help you and your teams generate “novel” story ideas in response to each client’s specific Request for Proposal.
Storyboards are graphical outlines of your proposal. They are a great way to help your team quickly visualize how your story should unfold, what it should look like when it’s finished, and control how they use their writing time. They also help the team identify any gaps in your proposition that might go unnoticed until halfway through the writing. Unfortunately, storyboarding often sparks a passionate debate because it can be time-consuming. So, try this:
Make a “Shot List”. Consider each proposal section as a “shot” in a movie. What do you want to reveal in each "shot"? What themes do you want to echo in each "shot"? How can you make each "shot" more impactful?
Sketch it out. Assign each section an image. It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming, graphically drawn display of the section’s action. It just needs to relate how you want the evaluator to feel when they finish reading the section.
Fill in details. What are the most important elements of each section? How will they help the evaluator feel like what the “Sketch’ displays? What will stand out according to the scoring criteria?
Add words. What specific words help convey the meaning of the “Sketch”? For example, what words engender trust and spark curiosity?
If storyboarding still strikes a collective eye-roll, try explaining it this way. A proposal uses the written word to communicate your proposition and persuade the evaluator over to your line of thinking. Using strong word choice and phrasing paints pictures in the evaluator’s mind as they read. These pictures spark curiosity, helping them imagine and visualize the impact of living with your solution. Storyboarding helps you and your team figure that out before writing begins, and makes it client-specific every time, by starting with the end picture in mind.
The Emotion Game focuses more on your team’s imagination than on images. It’s a great way to help your team quickly breakdown what will resonate with evaluators as they read your proposal, section by section. That’s because emotion in proposal writing helps create a connection between you and the evaluator. Also, as proposal writers, we are obviously more passionate about telling stories that also resonate with us. When evaluators connect, they naturally engage with your Win Theme(s), which makes them more likely to take action on your proposition. Try this:
Section by Section. Ask the team, what is the emotional cord we want to strike in each section? Perhaps you want the evaluator to feel worried? Encouraged? Excited? Relieved?
Context. What situational example can you couch this section in? Which one is the best example of the evaluator’s concern and goals with this section? What will help them understand?
Add words. What specific words help convey that the right emotion? Think optimistic words, such as inspire, focus and teamwork, that encourage the evaluator to look forward to a bright future, one in which you and your team and solution play a key role.
The Question Game is similar to the Emotion Game in that you engage the team in a series of questions. The key to the Question Game, however, is the question “what if?” Imagining “what if” questions are a powerful way to generate new stories of the same old-same old.
Section. Based on your experiences, how many “what if” questions can you ask about each section? What if the legacy system stopped working today? What if the project is delayed? What if you complete the project on deadline and on budget?
Story. How does each “what if” question play out as a story in each section? For example, if the legacy system stopped working today, the client wouldn’t be able to engage with their constituents. If you complete the project on deadline and on budget, their constituents will have greater faith in the administration. How would each play out?
Add words. What specific words help convey these emotions? What words engender trust and spark curiosity? For example, using the word “caring” can improve your trust factor. Using the word “proven” demonstrates approach efficiency, but only when used in conjunction with evidence.
If you’re looking to impact your team’s word choice, check this out; Professor Robert Plutchik’s visual wheel of eight emotions. It’s a great starting point for helping teams connect with the evaluator’s emotion and translate that into impactful word choice.
Quality proposals use story to engage evaluators, and even more importantly, clearly communicate the knowledge embedded within it; we understand and empathize with your challenge and we have the best solution to achieve your goals. Plus, by clearly communicating where you’re headed with your proposal, story also helps the proposal team write a more informed first draft that is easier to review and improve.