The proposal outline is an absolutely critical element in creating a winning proposal – here’s how to create one quickly and easily.
Before You Rush Into Writing…
So you reckon that you’re ready to start writing your proposal?
If that’s the case then I’m assuming that you’ve already worked through the module on the ‘Winning Proposal Model’ and have also reviewed the modules on analyzing your client’s requirements and developing a winning solution. Nice going!
Two final thoughts before you rush to write: if you’ve come straight here without trying to get a Pre-Proposal Review with your prospect then I’d like once again to strongly advise that you review that module and try to get this done (Module coming soon!) – it will make your understanding of their requirements immeasurably better and ensure that your solution is altogether tighter.
You should also have taken time to review the module on developing a proposal strategy – a key thrust for all of the messages you will now write into your proposal. Finally, I would really strongly recommend that you look at how to adapt your language and tone so that your readers will feel more at home with your proposal.
If you’ve done all this then you’re ready to start writing. Let’s go!
Three Stages in Writing a Business Proposal
This module is laid out to reflect the three main stages in taking your proposal from the initial planning stage right through to the point where you are happy that your proposal is ready to present to your client – and it all begins with the proposal outline.
Figure 1 illustrates these stages.
Figure 1: Preparing Your Proposal
Stage 1. Outline Your Proposal
Proposal outlining is a critical skill for business proposal writers – it will make your writing faster and much more effective.
Figure 2 is an extract from a proposal where the proposal has been ‘collapsed’ so that you can no longer see the body text of the proposal, instead all that is visible are the headings – this is a business proposal outline.
It is clear that there are six sections in this proposal.
Look particularly at Section 2 where the various headings and sub-headings haven’t been collapsed. Isn’t it interesting that even in the absence of the body text, even though all you can see is effectively the ‘bones’ of this proposal, you can still get a good feel for the messages the proposal is designed to communicate?
Figure 2: Proposal – One Level Collapsed
The proposal outline collapsed even more…
In Figure 3 the proposal has been collapsed even further so that some of the lower level headings have disappeared. Yet Section 2 still has enough information in the top level headings alone for you to get a general feel for the content of that section.
Figure 3: Proposal – Two Levels Collapsed
In Figure 4 I have collapsed the proposal even further, so that all you can see is the title of the proposal and the names of the six sections of the proposal – we are back to the basic proposal framework that was introduced in the module on the ‘Winning Proposal Model’. If I collapsed it one more time then all you’d see, logically, would be the title of the proposal.
What This Tells You about Creating your Proposal Outline
What you’ve just done is travelled back in time to see how this proposal was designed and written - and the whole process was started with basic outline.
Starting with nothing but the title, the author decided first upon how many sections were required - and slotted those in under her title (Figure4). To get her outline writing off to a quick start she used the ‘Winning‘ proposal structure.
Then she took Section 2 of her proposal and worked out what main ideas she wanted to communicate in that section - and slotted in a heading for each of those main ideas (Figure 3). After which she developed each of the main ideas in Section 2 a little further and inserted a series of sub headings under each of the main headings.
She would then have started to flesh out each of these sub headings with body text that explained it a little more. Finally she would have repeated that process for all other sections.
The writing is then much easier…
By the time she got to the point of writing that body text she’d have been so entirely clear on what she wanted to say that actually writing her proposal would have taken relatively little time.
What she did was ‘outline’ her proposal. Creating a great proposal outline is a skill which is absolutely indispensable to business proposal writers. Indeed, master outlining as a skill and you’ll find that you can write anything – this book started as nothing more than a title; then it grew some chapters; the chapters grew some major ideas I wanted to cover in each, and so on.
It is well worth the investment of time and effort required to learn outlining skills – they will allow you to produce more accurate and higher quality written work, in less time than you ever thought possible.
The Proposal Outline Made Easy: Outline View in Word for Windows
I build all of my proposals using Microsoft’s Word for Windows because Microsoft have made doing so extremely easy - by building a powerful outlining tool into Word for Windows.
Called ‘outline view’ it is available under the ‘View’ menu in Word (here’s a tutorial on how to use this powerful feature) (Deiric: link to new window). If you’ve never used it then start now and see how it changes the way you write forever – especially when you write complex documents like proposals.
One of the really great things about writing a business proposal outline using this powerful Word feature is that you can throw in your headings and ideas as they occur to you, and in pretty much any order that you like – because the outliner provides features that allow you to later move headings, sub-headings and whole sections of your proposal around from place to place very easily until the outline makes complete sense.
DO take the time to learn how to use this feature – it will make your proposal writing life very much easier.
Practical Steps to Prepare your Proposal Outline
If you’ve worked through the process in the modules on analyzing your client requirements and developing a winning solution then the good news is that you have already started upon the development of your outline, without even realizing it.
To illustrate the outlining process, this case study (Deiric: link to new window) will be used. This is the same case study that was used to illustrate many of the techniques discussed in previous modules.
Get Your Proposal Outline Established Quickly
If you apply the If you apply the ‘Winning Proposal Model’ principles to the case study, and convert your workings into an outline form, you will end up with an initial outline similar to that in Figure 5.
Figure 5: Case Study The Outline So Far
This is a classic top-level proposal outline – the title of the proposal sits at the top of the outline, with the various section names for the proposal arranged beneath it.
In reality this very top level of the outline is slightly different to the lower levels.
Set Up a Folder for Each New Proposal
I recommend that each of the sections of your proposal be separate documents. So the outline at this highest level should really be represented by a folder structure that I suggest you set up on your PC for your new proposal (see Figure 6 below).
Figure 6: Case Study: Top Level Outline File Structure
For every new proposal you should create a file structure like this one the moment you decide to write a new proposal - it will not only give you a first level outline to start working with, but will also help you to begin to unconsciously organize your thoughts on the proposal.
It ensures that you immediately begin to organize all of your materials and notes associated with the relevant section of your proposal into a logical structure.
It is then time to develop this outline further – building up the outlines for each of the individual sections.
As discussed earlier, client requirements are absolutely at the core of every Winning proposal - so this is where we’ll start now in the next module ‘Expanding Your Outline’…