Stories have the power to draw attention. For example, “My friend bought a Tesla.” That’s exciting! But when the story is over, it leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion. Narrative, on the other hand, shifts the way the reader thinks about the story by promoting the hero's specific point of view. For example, “My friend bought a Tesla, but they have to wait a year to get it”. Now the story promotes understanding, and draws a conclusion, as well as drawing attention.
In other words, you can have an engaging proposal story, about your business, your solution, and your team. But it’s only when your narrative helps evaluators understand your story that you have the opportunity to persuade them over to your conclusion.
How do you craft a contextual narrative that supports your story and compels evaluators? That’s what we’ll explore in this blog.
Narrative vs Story
Unlike Other business writing, such as training materials that are designed to inform and instruct, proposals are designed to engage, create a sense of urgency, and persuade. How do narrative and story work together?
Proposal Story is a description of the people and events. Think Silence of the Lambs; an ambitious FBI trainee takes on her first case. This is the hero's story you will tell.
Proposal Narrative is an account of a series of events. For example, we follow Clarice through a series of gripping interactions with Hannibal that lead the capture of a serial killer. This is how you will communicate the hero's journey.
When you use proposal story, you demonstrate your understanding of the evaluator's current state and the future state they want to achieve. When you use narrative to tell your proposal story, you build a bridge to that future state for the evaluator to follow.
Craft your Proposal Narrative
Proposal story and proposal narrative work the same way as in creative storytelling. Your client is the hero of the story. They face challenges and they must make choices. By following your bridge, the evaluator begins to imagine how their business and their lives, and the lives of their employees, clients or constituents, will change for the better thanks to you and your solution. When they are done reading your proposal, the conclusion is drawn for them (we have the best solution to achieve your goals) and they agree, so scoring is a no-brainer.
Consider your proposal story. The story’s conflicts, what evaluators are experiencing in their current state, are your plot points. Your proposal narrative will connect those plot points to your conclusion using the evaluator’s point of view.
Agree on a section position. A well-constructed position grabs attention so evaluators are open to your conclusion. What emotions (pains and concerns) are the evaluators experiencing as they read this section?
Understand your audience. Demonstrating your understanding of the evaluator’s current state makes your proposal feel more authentic, and that authenticity builds trust. What anecdotes can you use to demonstrate your understanding through the narrative? What will help the evaluator understand your solution?
Do your research. A persuasive narrative relies on solid, convincing evidence. Turn to your Win Strategy for details. If they’re not there, dig deeper. Who knows them? Who follows them on Social Media? In what context are they experiencing their concerns and goals? Consider everyone on the team, from sales to delivery, and if you’re the incumbent, customer support.
Identify the most convincing evidence. Gather your evidence, your proof points, your statistics and quotes. Which ones are most relevant to your position for this section? Look for evidence that connects the dots to your resolution and highlights the scoring criteria. What will create a sense of urgency in the hero?
Identify the opposing view. A good proposal narrative demonstrates not only why the proposal’s opinion is correct, but also why the competitor’s opinion is incorrect. Subtly exploring an opposing view (such as a competitor’s narrative) positions you as an authority, helping to promote the logic of your position. It also builds credibility, so your position is not so one-sided, leaving little room for dismissal and refutation. What does the hero already know about the competition you face?
As proposal contributors, writers and reviewers, it’s our job to convince the evaluator to accept our point of view, (our solution is the best choice), and take a specific action, (select our solution). Through effective proposal narrative, you position evaluators as your story's hero. This makes your proposal story more participatory and immersive, leaving evaluators craving more. So they cross the bridge and continue to imagine what the future will look like with you and your solution.
Using Proposal Themes to Inform you’re Proposal Narrative
Proposal themes are your section-specific feature/benefit or benefit/proof statements. They are unique to each section and are explicitly stated in the content. Quality proposals use proposal themes to capture the evaluator’s attention and clearly communicate “Why it’s urgent you should read and understand this section” and “Why it’s urgent you should select our solution”.
Proposal themes are also excellent “breadcrumbs”. They entice the hero to continue their journey across the bridge, continuing to consider their future state with your solution. Along the way, these “breadcrumbs” also help evaluators understand your solution, so they don’t get stuck, and lend comfort and support to their decision to keep reading.
Gather your team and consider what evaluator’s need highlighted in each section to support their journey across the bridge to accepting your solution to their desired future state.
Select your Section’s Proposal Themes. What does your evaluator care about in this section? For example, if you are writing a section about implementation, what keeps them up at night when it comes to implementing a solution to their challenge? What will engage them?
Benefits. What specific benefits will they receive/experience (within the context of their concerns) by choosing you and your solution? What will the desired future state look and feel like?
Evidence. What specific proof of benefits (again, within the context of their concerns) will spark imagination, encourage evaluator agreement and persuade them to accept your solution?
Consider the competition. What will the competition say? If it’s the same or similar, how can you lend a more personal context to the topic? If it’s different, emphasize the logic of your position.
Where win themes are high-level, underlying messages not explicitly stated in the text, proposal themes are used as subtitles, call-out boxes and graphic titles to emphasize your position. They are a great way to draw attention to areas where your solution scores high, and de-emphasize where you feel your solution falls short. When you outline your proposal themes as part of your pre-writing plan, proposal themes also act as a clear guide for writers and reviewers, helping them hone in on how you want the evaluator to feel when they’ve finished reading the section.
Deploy your Proposal Narrative
As important as narrative is to communicating your story, narrative structure is crucial to following your hero's journey. The proper structure presents your position coherently, helping the evaluator follow your story’s logic.
Once you’ve outlined your section narrative and considered your section’s proposal themes, deploy your proposal narrative structure:
Grab the reader’s attention using a “hook”. For example, the evaluator’s concern about this section.
Provide an overview of your position. For example, trying to leverage aging technology to reach your constituents is the equivalent of trying to send a text message using a rotary phone.
Close with a summary thesis statement, leaving no doubt as to the strength of your position. This will encourage the evaluator to read on to better understand.
Focus on one single point at a time, couching each within a real-life example from the evaluator’s perspective. For example, in what daily context will the evaluator experience the topic of this section paragraph?
Consider the evaluator’s concerns with the single point of this paragraph. What will keep them from understanding, and accepting your solution so they cross the bridge to their desired future state?
Support the single point with strong evidence that is relevant to the evaluator. For example, if the concern is project overruns, demonstrate evidence of your proven risk strategy.
Opposing View Paragraph:
Consider the opposing view. What will your competition claim? Briefly describe and then refute their key section points to build authority and credibility and ensure evaluators continue to follow your logic across the bridge.
Restate and reinforce. Summarize your thesis statement. Support it with the most important evidence about this section. Make the closing sentence imply urgent action is needed. For example, a question that provokes the evaluator to think seriously about how your solution will spark the change they see for their business.
Review your Proposal Theme Callouts and Graphics:
Do they address the evaluator’s most urgent concerns?
Do they illustrate how your solution addresses the scoring criteria?
Do they help the evaluator understand and absorb what’s important about this section?
Do they guide the hero's journey?
Do they lead to the next section?
Without structure, your narrative is just a loose collection of facts and evidence. By focusing your narrative structure on your hero, you ensure that every part of the section is relevant, making it easier to write, review, evaluate and score.
The last emotion you want any evaluator to experience when they start reading your proposal is dread. By using proposal story to communicate with evaluators you draw their attention by speaking specifically to their needs. By telling your proposal story through a relevant, contextual narrative, you deepen the evaluator’s understanding of your solution and spark their imagination. In the end, the hero of the story crosses the bridge and emerges with knowledge and wisdom to save the day.