From writing funding proposals to crafting business cases, technical communicators often face the challenge of persuading someone to release money and resources to initiate or sustain a project. Whether or not there are formal requirements, usually presented in the form of a “request for proposals” (the dread “RFP”), there are four key elements to any proposal. To describe them, we can’t do much better than the immortal words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, in Yes Prime Minister:
There are four words in a proposal if you want it thrown out. Complicated. Lengthy. Expensive. Controversial. There are four words you have to work into a proposal for a minister to accept it. Quick. Simple. Popular. Cheap.”
Though it might seem odd to be quoting a lead character from a work of satirical fiction, it will seem less strange if you consider that one of the writers of these words, Sir Antony Jay, was the author of the popular Management and Machiavelli. Speaking as a former employee of the Canadian federal government and a long-term observer of said government, I have to say that Jay and his co-writer Jonathan Lynn nailed their depiction of how government really works.
That being said, what can we learn from Sir Humphrey’s advice?
Technical information may be complex, but its description and explanation must never be. When readers don’t understand what you’re trying to propose, they’re likely to jump to their own conclusions. If those conclusions aren’t what you want them to reach, your proposal will fail. Crafting a successful proposal requires simplicity: you must understand your audience (the people who will review and hopefully approve the proposal) and their goals (things they hope to accomplish with your help). Then you must explain why you (or your team, if you’re not working solo) can meet those goals. Simply.
Unless you know the reviewers and therefore know how much they understand of the subject, don’t assume they know everything they need to know to understand your proposal. Some will be experts on the subject; others will be bureaucrats, often the people who will decide whether or not to pass your proposal to the person who will make the final decision. Provide definitions and links to resources that explain a concept in more detail. This helps to ensure the reader has the tools to understand what you’re proposing.
One thing Sir Humphrey didn’t mention: follow the instructions provided by the reviewer scrupulously, no matter how complex or annoying. Reviewers who are asked to review dozens or even hundreds of applications have been known to reject a compelling proposal simply because it didn’t use the right margins or typeface. Though this is most often done by lazy or overworked bureaucrats, it’s also true that many believe that someone who can’t follow instructions on how to prepare a simple proposal probably can’t manage a complex project well either.
None of us has time to read everything we’re being asked to read. That means proposals must be, to the extent this is possible, a quick read. Even when we have enough time, our eyes start to glaze over when a document takes forever to get to the point or provides endless detail about things we don’t actually want or need to know. There’s a solution, which we can state by paraphrasing Occam’s principle: make it as short as possible, but no shorter. If we did a good job of handling the previous point (simplicity), we’re halfway to a concise document.
Getting the rest of the way to that goal requires a skilled eye for what is essential, versus what is merely supportive. Present the essential first, then summarize the facts that support your case; move the remainder of the primarily supportive information into the appendices or the supporting material. Use graphics (“a picture is worth a thousand words”) and tables to summarize key points concisely.
In a previous job, my boss often sent me manuscripts with the cryptic request that I chop the length by 50%. I got good enough at this work that one of my authors gave me the nickname “the velvet chainsaw”. You can learn this skill too.
There’s not much you can do to sugar-coat the costs of an expensive proposal. What you can do is put those costs in context. How much have previous proposals cost? How much money did they save or earn? On this basis, does the proposal justify its costs? Answering these questions may take a bit of research, and because that research can be time-consuming and frustrating if you haven’t done it before, you may consider taking shortcuts. Don’t fall for that temptation. Find solid information on these costs and rigorously document the information and its sources, and consider both internal resources (the project management and accounting groups may be able to provide) and external resources (for example, pricing information from potential vendor websites).
Next, craft a budget. If you haven’t created a project budget before, ask someone who has. Your manager can usually recommend someone who, in their opinion, creates compelling budgets. That person may be your manager! A good place to start is the published budget for a previously accepted proposal, since you know that example was successful and will be worth following; moreover, it may include items you forgot to include in your proposal. Ensure that your analysis is comprehensive. You can’t predict surprises caused by things that are beyond your control (e.g., a pandemic), but there should be no omissions of what I call “known surprises”; these are things you don’t expect to occur (hence the “surprise” part), but that you know may well occur. In particular, never omit a cost or lie about its magnitude solely to reduce the cost of the proposal. When you inevitably run out of money, there’s a high risk the project will fail, and you don’t want to acquire a reputation as the person who always underestimates the costs, leading to emergency requests for additional funding.
Budgets need to account for unexpected costs, which means you need to build a little breathing room into the estimates. The problem, of course, is that if you pad your budget too much, the overall cost increase may make your proposal seem too expensive compared to other proposals. All you can do in such cases is think from a triage perspective: some of the things you’d like to do if you had unlimited time and money may be expendable if their omission doesn’t prevent your project from achieving the really important goals.
Different proposal reviewers will have differing opinions on how a project should proceed. Do your research to learn those differences, and seek ways to reconcile them. Provide evidence that will persuade the majority to support your favored approach even if it’s not their preferred approach. However, if you only describe one approach, reviewers who don’t like that approach may reject your proposal. Comparing your preferred approach with potentially suitable alternatives and listing the advantages and drawbacks of each approach shows that you’ve done your homework and provides support for your recommended approach. Of course, don’t overdo it; perhaps restrict the discussion to your favored approach and the most reasonable alternative.
“Controversial” often means that a project will be unpopular among those who are affected by the project, which will cause embarrassment or inconvenience for those who approved the proposal. Identifying why a project might prove to be unpopular (audience analysis!) may reveal ways to eliminate the controversy, mitigate any discomfort or problems it causes, or at least persuade those who are affected by the project to be more tolerant and willing to give the proposal a try.
Crafting a winning proposal
Each of these four points is an essential part of crafting a winning proposal. But there’s much more that you may need to do. For example:
- Complexity may also mean that certain steps in the proposal represent single points of failure. Identifying those points and crafting backups or safety mechanisms to avoid those failures will strengthen your proposal. Most organizations consider risk identification and mitigation to be critical business functions, and including “risk management” as a part of the proposal indicates you understand the environment in which you’re making your proposal.
- A too-lengthy proposal may indicate that your proposal is too ambitious and should be scaled down so that it’s more manageable. This can also make the project less expensive and more likely to succeed. As the saying goes, “underpromise and overdeliver”!
- Expensive sometimes means that you’ve proposed a Cadillac project when all that’s possible—or necessary—is a Chevrolet. What less-expensive methods could provide satisfactory, if not “shiny”, results?
- “Controversial” often indicates a need for two or more proposals rather than one, with each proposal satisfying a different component of the audience that will be affected by the proposed project. In some cases, a good solution would be to propose a project with a high likelihood of successfully meeting the audience’s needs at a low cost, but that can be subsequently adapted or expanded to meet a different audience’s needs. Think of this as a test–confirm–adapt–reapply approach. That’s the proverbial win–win solution. It may also be faster and less expensive.
Balancing efforts to meet the many needs of the different audiences who will review and be affected by a proposal is both challenging and stimulating. It will leverage your communication skills like nothing else you’ve done. For that reason, proposal writing is a great way to learn and grow as a communicator.
Geoff Hart is an STC Fellow with more than 35 years of writing, editing, translation, and scientific communication experience. He’s the author of two popular books, Effective Onscreen Editing and Write Faster With Your Word Processor. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.