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6 Things All Winning Proposals Have in Common

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Cheryl Smith



4 min

Every new opportunity and RFP is different. Every project presents its own nuances and challenges. But no matter the industry, scope or end goal, all winning proposals have these six features in common:

1. They Lead With the Client's Needs and Challenges

Successful proposals are designed to both mimic and enable the decision-making process. When people make decisions, the first thing on their mind is the challenge they need to remedy. If you begin your proposal by addressing the needs that have driven your client to search for a solution, you'll guarantee that your message will resonate and hold traction with your audience.

Leading with a client's needs communicates fundamental understanding, respect and a willingness to put their needs first. In addition, opening in this way will help you position your solution as a logical response to their pain points, making it easier for readers to connect the dots between their needs and your proposed solution.

2. They Include an Executive Summary

Every winning proposal has a compelling executive summary. This is the first impression. If you're not adequately prepared, it could be the thing that leaves the biggest impression on an evaluation committee when determining the value of your bid. Think of the executive summary as your first chance to give your sales pitch and make an impression.

An executive summary should tell your audience why they need to read your proposal, why you're submitting it and why they should ultimately choose you for the job. If they read nothing else in their first evaluation round, an executive summary should convince your audience that you're worthy of additional time and consideration moving forward.


Although it shouldn't function as a glossary, an executive summary should mirror the structure of your proposal. This will make it easier for reviewers to connect different aspects of your pitch to their corresponding sections in the proposal body. By employing the same structure and using similar section titles and diction in your executive summary as in the proposal, you'll keep your message consistent, clear and organized throughout. 

Some companies leave writing the executive summary until after they've completed their proposal, but writing it beforehand can streamline and improve your proposal writing process by identifying important themes and structural formats for writers to follow.

3. They Highlight Key Differentiators

Creating a compelling value proposition means differentiating yourself from your competition. Differentiators should be explicitly laid out in your executive summary and threaded throughout the entire proposal. What makes your company different? What makes your solution a better fit? Use the executive summary to connect your strengths to different aspects of your solution. If you have greater experience in a given area or advanced skills with regard to certain project requirements, communicate those key differentiators at the get-go.

If you define key discriminators before you begin writing your proposal, you'll help guide your delivery strategy instead of dealing with setbacks later on in the process. If every individual and department involved in completing the proposal understands your main differentiators, then they can craft their section to better reflect, accentuate and support those points. Outlining key differentiators early on also lends to a more coherent and unified first draft, so you'll spend less time retroactively editing and repositioning your message in review meetings.

4. They Demonstrate Their Intended Outcome

Winning proposals have emotional as well as practical resonance. Like a compelling advertisement that lets you imagine what your life would be like if you were to purchase a product, a good proposal will help its evaluation team imagine how a solution will look and feel once implemented. That means going beyond listing features or project specifications and describing the impact of your proposed solution on their organization. For example, in some parts of the world, companies employ artists to paint pictures for their proposal of the end state of the work, with images of satisfied and happy customers.

What will you empower your client to accomplish? How will your solution remedy the challenge they're currently experiencing? What will their organization look like with your help? How will you enable their future success? Make sure at least one of your win themes directly addresses the emotional context of your solution.

5. They Provide Evidence

When it comes to formulating a compelling argument, evidence is everything. Your audience wants to believe that you can solve their problem, so make it easy for them to trust you by providing proof throughout your proposal. 

Evidence can take the form of client testimonials, relevant experience, demonstrated skills, key performance metrics, and more. You don't need to have executed a project before in order to be convincing. Much like a job interview, it's important to frame your experience and strengths within the context of this unique opportunity. Persuading evaluators to hire you requires being informed, prepared, and equally aware of your potential weakness as you are of your strengths. Address areas of inexperience head-on by proactively identifying a plan and any additional resources you will leverage to help you deliver what you say you will.

6. They're Written With Enthusiasm, Clarity, and Sophistication

Even if writing isn't an integral part of your daily business or your proposed solution, remember that the proposal itself is a representation of your company, your values, your attention to detail, and your commitment to quality. Demonstrating your expertise doesn't mean overwriting or using impenetrable, jargon-heavy language that will alienate the average reader. It means communicating even high-level topics in a clear, accessible, and concise way that respects your audience's time and rewards their attention. 

If your company's subject matter experts aren't naturally skilled written communicators, have designated writers interview them and translate their insight into compelling proposal copy.

It's important to keep in mind that even the most skilled writers still require a second pair of eyes. Make sure your proposal is thoroughly combed for any typos, redundancies, or content errors, as these weaken and distract from your underlying message and integrity. Your writing should enhance your message delivery, inspire trust in your brand and reflect the same level of care and attention you'll put into executing your solution.

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Cheryl Smith

Cheryl Smith is our Senior Content Writer. She has additionally been writing and managing proposals since 1998. Shipley trained, she has helped establish proposal centers and advised on capture strategy, coached orals teams and lead marketing, communications and knowledge management programs. Cheryl is a graduate of The George Washington University with degrees in Theatre, Communications and Literature. When she’s not sharing her passion for work, she loves drawing, writing, cooking and exploring the Virginia woodlands with her husband, their dog Chase and the fuzzy guests they host for Rover.

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