Sweating the Details: 5 Steps to Better Business Proposals

August 3, 2016

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[dragon images]

It may be the most important document in public relations: the new-business proposal. Whether you work for an agency, a corporation or a nonprofit, a focus on winning new clients or accounts is a standard part of doing business.

But putting together new-business proposals can sometimes be anything but standard. Oftentimes, it involves team efforts that require integrating a range of information about capabilities and experience, recruiting the right colleagues to provide insights to address certain business challenges, and rushing to compile all this information in snazzy booklets under tight deadlines.

Not surprisingly, many grammar-and-style matters can fall through the cracks when this many people touch this much information under this timeline.

In my role as an editor over the past 15 years, I’ve developed my own list of errors that are prone to arise in these situations, and below are six of the most common to look out for.

Mistakes in new-business materials are embarrassing, unacceptable and, of course, can be detrimental. Regardless of how much time you have to pull together a proposal, it’s important to always sweat the details and not settle for anything less than perfection.

1. Writing ‘would you’ or ‘will you’

When you describe a proposed course of action, you can use the conditional verb tense (would) or the future tense (will): Our team will start by developing an influencer program to identify the leading players in this space who can best spread the word about Company ABC’s message. The conditional tense is less assuming while the future tense expresses stronger intent, but either is OK. However, it’s easy to inadvertently jump back and forth between these two tenses and create a section that reads awkwardly. Remember: Keep this verb-tense choice consistent throughout a proposal. 

2. Using Mr. and Ms. with a last name or first name

When you describe the talents of your team in the bio section of proposals, it’s easy to alternate from a formal style (Mr. Joseph Gillis) to a casual one (Joseph) to one in between (Gillis), depending on how a bio was originally written or what style seems most appropriate for a prospect. Although the use of the first name tends to be a more common style nowadays, be sure to choose one style and stick with it in all the bios. 

3. Remembering that a company is only one

When including case studies in a proposal, a common pitfall in describing past work is to refer to a corporation with a plural pronoun: When Company XYZ launched the product, they needed a way to raise awareness. This reflects the informal conversational style of referring to a person or company in a plural form. In writing, however, remember that a corporation is a singular entity and should always be referred to with the singular pronoun “it.”

4. Writing in parallel structure

Proposals are usually chock-full of bulleted lists, so remember the most common error with bulleted lists is a lack of parallel construction. This error not only presents a grammatical problem, but also the abruptness of it can read as sloppy thinking, as this example shows:

We offer services to help clients gain media coverage in these ways:

  • Develop a full-scale media strategy with measurable objectives
  • Relationships with reporters of top-tier media
  • Write content, including news releases and byline articles
  • Media monitoring and coverage analysis
  • Provide media training for different interview situations

As you can see, the second and fourth bullet points read inconsistently by not starting with a verb. Remember, if the first bulleted item is a noun, the rest of the items should be nouns. If the first item is a complete sentence, the rest of the items should be as well. Each item should be a continuation of the first point.

5. Watching your English

If you’re working on a proposal team that includes British-English and American-English speakers, then be sure to choose one kind of English and designate a native speaker who can act as a final authority in proofing the use of that English. Although these two kinds of English are generally interchangeable, enough differences exist to cause misunderstandings. Here are a few issues:

In American English, periods and commas are always enclosed in closing quotation marks. In British English, however, only those punctuation marks that appear in the original material are enclosed in quotation marks. American English: “I won’t go,” Norma said. British English: “I won’t go”, Norma said.

Note the differences in spellings and meanings between these frequently used words (with the American-English first and the British-English second): ad, advert; anchor (TV news anchor), presenter; center, centre; color, colour; period (the punctuation mark), full stop; program, programme; résumé, CV (curriculum vitae); zee (pronunciation of “z”), zed.

6. Using one or two spaces

Finally, this may seem like nitpicking, but inconsistent spacing following the end of a sentence does make a difference. For the record, correct spacing after a punctuation mark ending a sentence is one space — not two. With the large number of people who contribute to proposals, it’s likely that this inconsistency will crop up. Try to enforce the one-space rule.

To be sure, this is a minor style issue, but it’s the same as if black text were used in part of a proposal and gray text in another part. It’s small but noticeable. Any inconsistency you can eliminate will make the final product better.

Joseph Priest, APR

Joseph Priest, APR, is a corporate writer at Syniverse, a mobile-solutions company in Tampa, Fla. He co-manages Syniverse’s blog and social media. Email him at joseph.priest@syniverse.com.
 

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