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Propose and conquer! Strategies for improving your presentations

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A reader asks, “Jeff, how do I improve my proposals?”

Great question, because it has applicability to every individual and business. While this is a topic I could easily wax rhapsodic on, I sought additional advice.

You’ve read this declaration before: “I’m lucky to have talented friends!” Dianna Booher is another really smart friend. She’s the most prolific author I know. She has written 44 books — on sales presentations, proposals, strategic writing, successful meetings and other business topics. Although we only see each other a couple of times a year at industry-related events, it’s always fun to visit with Dianna — to learn from her and to kid her.

When Dianna and I are on an elevator, before we exit I’ll ask, “So we rode eight floors together — did you just finish another book?” Her latest bestseller is “Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors.”

While Dianna’s answers to my questions have obvious application to your written proposals, pay close attention to her language. You’ll also discover how it easily can be adapted to oral presentations or proposals.


Jeff Blackman: How do you convey confidence in a proposal?

Dianna Booher: The best way is specificity. Specificity creates credibility. Vagueness produces doubt. Be specific about your track record, what exactly you’ve done, for whom and with what specific results. Be specific about what results you can achieve for the prospect and within what time frame. Be specific when you cite references. Be specific in the biographies you attach. Anyone can offer hype. You want to win with facts and certifiable results.


What’s irresistible proposal language that prompts decision-makers to take action and say “yes!”?

The bigger question is this: what language NOT to include. The following weasel words scream, “I’m guessing! Loophole, loophole!”

• Will attempt to ...

• In most cases ...

• Typical results include ...

• Will make every effort to ...

• Not an implied guarantee ...

• Dependent, of course, on X, Y and Z, over which we have no control.

What, then, are sure-fire, guaranteed steps or strategies that turn proposals into new business?

Streamline your proposal to one key strategy and only one secondary strategy. You can’t be all things to all buyers.

Basically, you have only six strategies:

1. Your product/service is the best.

2. Your management of the project/sale is best.

3. Your technical expertise is the best.

4. Your customer service/training is the best.

5. Your pricing is best.

6. You’re better than competitors.

Decide which is your key selling point(s) and drive that home on every page in every way. Think TV commercials. Each ad doesn’t make 10 key points.


How do you avoid/eliminate “proposal purgatory” i.e., the proposal is still “sitting on their desk” and “awaiting a decision”?

Leave the action in your hands: That is, suggest the next action YOU will take. For example:

• You’ll be arranging a demo with a current client so the prospect can see your product in action; or

• You’ll be interviewing some of the prospect’s key people to collect data crucial to the project’s successful execution.

Also consider:

• statements like “the offer, investment is good for X days.”

• raising concerns about what might be jeopardized, if the project or decision is delayed.


What are common proposal mistakes? (How can they be avoided?)

Here are five.


MISTAKE 1: No strategy.

The most important feature of your proposal should be your theme or strategy, which is developed and repeated:

• Why should the decision-maker select you over others?

• Do you have the best design?

• Do you have the best-trained technicians?

• Do you have the latest technology, equipment or information?

• Can you do it faster than competitors? Stress key overriding themes with your capabilities and expertise.


MISTAKE 2: Failure to show adequate understanding of the problem.

Don’t have all the answers before you hear their questions. A necessary part of your job is to communicate to the reader/listener a full understanding of the problem or objective, so he or she will be convinced your solution is the right one.


MISTAKE 3: Answers to the wrong problems.

Make sure you investigate a decision-maker’s stated needs or wants. What an RFP states and what can be gleaned from a discussion with the buyer may be vastly different. Many, including me, have learned this tough truth the hard way.

Once, we received a request to propose a training program that already included a detailed course outline. Because there were several spots for improvements, we called the prospect and asked if the topics were firmly set. We were told, “Yes. That’s exactly what we want. Our VPs and technical experts have signed off on that outline.”

So we developed our proposal to focus on the outline. It was rejected. The prospect’s explanation: “The winning proposer completely scrapped our course outline. What he suggested made more sense, and we’re really excited about the changes.”

You, too, must discover the differences between stated needs and real needs, yet only by uncovering discrepancies. Give clients what they need, but be sure to discover their real needs.


MISTAKE 4: Extravagant claims.

Readers raise eyebrows when individuals and their organizations claim to have expertise in everything.

Avoid hype, such as

• “the most extensive”

• “the most authoritative”

• “unequaled”

• “the undisputed leader”

Tone down claims, so you can support them with facts. Instead of hyperbole, include published articles, survey results, test data, testimonial letters, sample products or whatever supports your claims.

Overstatement produces skepticism.

MISTAKE 5: No memory aids.

By the time a decision-maker reviews several proposals, disorientation sets in, i.e., “Which proposal writer claims to be able to do what, why, where, when, how and at what cost?”

Don’t assume your reader will be as eager to work at understanding and remembering your key points as you are. Instead, provide help with overview statements, defined sections, summary blurbs, informative headings, and, where appropriate, high-impact graphics with full captions.


How do you use a proposal to position a relationship, not just a project or an assignment?

Proposals should identify you as a key player — if not for this project, then the next one. Emphasize your credentials, expertise and successful solutions. Always position yourself as a trusted adviser.

If you win this one, great. If not, keep the door open with friendly questions or statements like “How can we meet your needs better next time?” or “What suggestions can you make, to help us help you, next time?”


For more strategies, see

Jeff Blackman is an Illinois-based speaker, author, success coach, broadcaster and lawyer. Email him at

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