Writing proposals that win you projects

Why You Need To Write Assumption-less Proposals

By Brennan Dunn

Earlier this week, I dug up the first real proposal I’d ever written for a client. It was from mid-2006, and the project was a marketplace for doctors to virtually consult with their patients (back then, this client and I were apparently blissfully unaware of the many legalities around doing this).

So as an eager young freelancer, I felt it my duty to put together a proposal. The cursory reading I had done at the time on freelancing informed me that two things were necessary: a contract, and a proposal.

The issue was, I didn’t really know what my proposal should look like, or let alone what it should actually contain.

After a bit of searching around, it seemed like a proposal consisted of the following elements:

  • A mission statement-y sounding paragraph about the project, called the “Overview”
  • Some boilerplate stuff about who I am
  • A scope of work — e.g. the stuff I’ll be doing
  • How much it’ll cost and how long it’ll take
  • How to get started (a deposit payment, sign on the dotted line, etc.)

I started using this formula, and ended up using it for years. After all, just about every proposal template on the Internet was developed off some variation of the above formula. If it’s good enough for the world, it’s good enough for me.


Why most project proposals don’t actually tell the client anything

When my wife and I were shopping for our house, I remember always wanting the homes we saw that were fully furnished. “Deborah, that last one was GREAT. Let’s make an offer!”

I could picture myself coming home and relaxing on that couch, or grabbing a midnight snack from that refrigerator. The empty homes we saw just didn’t do it for me. And while my wife had no problem visualizing whether or not each house we toured would fit our family and our needs, my imagination only went as far as to really picture a house as a home if it was furnished.

Your clients probably aren’t that much different than me when I’m looking for houses. They might have a hard time imagining their business as a result of what it is you’re proposing to do. If you’re just proposing the technicals and the details of the project, you’re leaving a lot up to their imagination.

If you’re trying to sell your clients on working with you by describing the website, the app, or the details of a marketing campaign, you’re assuming that they can put two and two together and, like my wife, be capable of imagining how this project will fit with their business.

By forcing them to mentally telegraph the scope of work you’re proposing to them with what they’re really looking to do, you’re making an assumption — you’re assuming they know how what you’re proposing will benefit their business. And assumptions are almost always wrong or inaccurate.

The answer is to write assumption-less proposals

Ignoring the “Overview” section, the typical proposal leaves a lot up to the imaginations of your clients.

  • “About Us/Me” — Do they understand my business and my needs?
  • “Project Scope” — Will this actually solve the problem I have?
  • “Cost” — Will I end up making a return-on-investment? Or will I just spend a bunch of money?
  • “Getting Started” — Have they completely convinced me that they can help me?

These are the questions your clients are asking themselves as they read your proposal. And if you’re not answering them, you’re presenting yourself as high-risk.

By selling the how without the why, you’re forcing the client to assume how what it is you propose to give them will actually give them what they truly need.

I didn’t want a house, I wanted a home.

And when I was shown an empty room, devoid of decoration, I had to mentally translate what I was being shown into the home I wanted. But fortunately, my real estate agent — by virtue of her profession — knew how to sell. She helped me envision how this house I was looking at, a foreclosed shell draped in the grey of a Virginian winter, could be the home I raised my children in. And that’s what convinced me to buy.

When I started tying together how what it is I was proposing to do with why it had to be done, my sales skyrocketed. Literally. It wasn’t because I suddenly because amazingly persuasive or anything. I simply began to leave little for assumption, and little for the imagination. I was still selling websites and apps, but these were website and apps that were meant to make a measurable impact in the businesses of my clients.

If you’ve picked up Double Your Freelancing Rate, section 3 outlines the structure, tone, and content you want to include in your proposals to convey the why. But if you haven’t yet, here’s the structure I advocate:

  • “Why You’re Here” — What problem lies at the root of this project?
  • “Where You Want To Be” — What does it mean to solve this problem?
  • “What We Want To Do” — What paths are we proposing, and how do these options align with solving the problems of the client?
  • “What We’ll Be Preparing For” — What can cause this project to fail, and how do we plan on overcoming these risks?
  • “Why We’re Best For The Project” — What specific domain or business expertise do we have, ideally in the form of a case study, that demonstrates that we understand this problem and how to fix it?
  • “How We Can Do This For You” — From the different paths we’ve propose, how do each of these satisfy the solution we’re aiming for, and what kind of ROI can the client expect from each option?

I’m still ultimately describing who I am and my credentials, what we’ll technically be doing, how much it will cost, what it will take, and more. It’s all still there, it’s just not the focus.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb…
When writing proposals, ask yourself: Am I proposing a house, or a home?

I’d love to hear about a recent proposal of yours. Do you think you did a good job in selling why the project mattered? Let me know in the comments below.