How to Choose the Right Words for a Successful Proposal

How to choose the right words for a successful proposal

Preacher3When writing a business proposal, choosing the right words is just as important as with any other branch of writing. The fundamental elements of correct grammar, syntax, and mechanics should all be present in a business proposal, for sure. But business proposals sometimes employ industry, or niche, specific jargon and writing conventions that must also be factored into the equation.

When the time comes to write a proposal, it’s sometimes tough to balance the use of advanced grammar, industry jargon, and general readability. Since creating the right tone for a piece of writing is crucial to the success of your proposals, let’s take a look at some of the best tips to remember as you and your team draft future proposals.

Grammar, grammar, grammar

Correct grammar is essential to all kinds of writing – this is something instilled in virtually everyone from an early age onward. But using correct words, capitalization, tenses, verbiage, and grammatical personage is critical to the success of a business proposal. Using poor grammar, syntax, or mechanics is distracting at best and, at worst, will send a bad message to your audience – a sign that you and your team don’t know what you are doing or maybe just don’t care enough about the reader.

One of the most common mistakes in business writing is improper capitalization. Business writers have a tendency to use incorrect capitalizations because they confuse common nouns with corresponding proper nouns.

Consider the following example:

Generico will work as a liaison between the independent contractor, the supply Company, and Acme Company to oversee the development of the new facility. 

In the above example, the first use of the word “company” does not need to be capitalized, because it is not part of the proper name of the supply company. The second use is appropriate, because it is part of the name “Acme Company.” How many times in the past have you seen similar mistakes in business writings? If you’ve noticed this in the past, chances are the recipients of your proposals will notice such mistakes, too.

Other problems arise from the improper use of tenses. One concept that writers wrestle with is that, in most industries, the research portion of a product’s development is described in past tense, while the products themselves are referred to in present tense.

Take a look at the following example of correct tense usage:

The Ford Focus is a compact car developed in 1998 as a replacement for the Escort in the company’s lineup. The Focus’ design incorporates elements that its development team borrowed from earlier models, dating as far back as 1996. 

Note that, in the example above, the Ford Focus is referred to using the present tense “is” and the active, present form of the verb “incorporate.” Meanwhile, note that the use of “developed” and “borrowed” refer to actions that occurred in the past. This is an example of proper tense, and the concepts it presents are something you’ll want to be mindful of in creating your proposals.

Grammatical person is another source of trouble in business writing. Person is most frequently indicated through the use of personal pronouns like he, she, they, them, his, hers, theirs, and ours. This becomes a particularly egregious problem when a personal pronoun is used to identify a business or organization.

Here’s an example:

Plain Co. will assign a dedicated account manager to provide regular reports on their success to your company’s Board of Directors. 

In the above example, who is “their”? This usage not only reads poorly, it also personifies “Plain Co.” in a way that is not clear.

A better version of this sentence would read:

Plain Co. will assign a dedicated account manager to provide regular reports on its success to your company’s Board of Directors.

The word “it” explains to the reader that Plain Co. – the thing in the sentence – is what the account manager will be reporting on, rather than some other body. Since the account manager and the Board of Directors are people, and the word “their” is a personal pronoun, using “their” in the above sentence can potentially confuse the reader as to what you’re talking about.

There are a million deep, detailed resources available on the subject of grammar, covering all aspects of the topic. As a general rule of thumb, it’s not a bad idea to keep a grammar reference (like The Hodges Harbrace Handbook) on hand when drafting proposals. You may even want to create a Style Guide to disseminate amongst your team to make sure that certain key items (like the ones listed above) are understood by the researchers and writers who help with creating proposals for your business.

Word Variety and Tone

Using a good variety of words and choosing a tone that is appropriate to your audience are also essential to creating a winning proposal. Often, when it’s time to start typing in a business setting, a author will immediately start writing in the most ornate, wordy way they can. This is not always the best approach. Your writing is not effective if it is too wordy or long in the tooth. The main thing to bear in mind is the clarity of your message. So you should choose words that are able to be understood by the average person, whenever possible.

That being said, there’s no reason to make your writing excessively simplified or elementary. One of the best ways to avoid sounding uninformed is to be thinking about word variety when writing. Being mindful of word variety will also help your writing not seem redundant.

Here’s an example of a sentence that can benefit from word variety:

Basic Corp. will inspect all widgets prior to shipping, inspect all invoices for order accuracy, and inspect all packages before final shipment. 

Notice that, in the above sentence, there’s a whole lot of inspection going on. This sentence might not seem as redundant if it were rewritten as follows:

Basic Corp. Will inspect all widgets prior to shipping, review all invoices for order accuracy, and examine all packages before final shipment. 

Note that in the last example, the new verbs enhance the flow of ideas and add value to the information being presented. Similar concepts can be applied throughout your writing to improve the effectiveness of your proposals.

Similarly, your overall tone in writing proposals should be given careful consideration. The main thing to avoid is sounding too commanding or demanding. The use of participial verbs and gerund phrases is the best path to nurturing the reader to an actionable outcome.

Here’s an example of an indicative sentence that can benefit from revision:

Send your payment of $100 to Pretend Corporation to take advantage of its services.

The idea is substantially more action-oriented when altered to read:

Start enjoying of all the benefits of Pretend Corporation’s services today by sending your payment of $100.

The above may not constitute the most compelling copy ever written, but as you can see, the language you use can influence the recipient positively or negatively depending upon tone. If you use gerunds – the doing forms of verbs – to suggest outcomes, your readers will be in a more actionable mindset as they read your proposals.

The Role of Jargon

Practically every industry has its own unique jargon. Industry-specific terminology plays a pivotal role in a proposal, because its use must be exceedingly judicious. While you don’t want to drown your reader in jargon and tech talk, you want to use just enough of those types of phrases to illustrate to your reader that you are knowledgeable about the subject matter.

Consider limiting jargon usage only to those popular catchphrases that a mainstream audience will understand in relation to your industry. If your business is an industrial electrical contractor, your proposals can safely refer to terms like junction boxes and mains, which even the layman understands to be pertinent to electrical work. Other, deeper industry terms that have meaning only to electricians should probably be avoided. The decision-maker may or may not be an engineer, but could simply be from accounting. This example can be transferred to all sorts of industries.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that there are occasions and situations where deeper jargon is appropriate. As an example built on the one above, if your business is electrical contracting and your proposal is intended to secure a joint venture with another electrical company, you can feel free to use as much industry-speak as you deem is warranted to explain the actions you propose. In short, use your judgment when it comes to choosing to use technical terms and other jargon, as different audiences will have varying levels of understanding of certain terminology.

Keep it Simple

One of the best pieces of advice for business writing is to keep it simple. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing for writing’s sake, but you want to avoid this when working on business proposals, especially. There should be no sentence present in the writing that does not need to be there. Likewise, you want to avoid superfluous adjectives and academic words, like “therefore” and “however.” Such words are fine in other formats, but you want to keep your readers focused on your proposal’s intent and purpose. Less is more, when it comes to writing winning business proposals.

Proofread Everything

It may seem obvious, but make sure you plan for plenty of opportunities to proof your proposals. It’s a good idea to have multiple people inside your organization proofread, with your Proposal Manager having oversight of the final edit before submitting the proposal. You might be surprised by how many typos and other mistakes you can catch with thorough proofing, thereby improving your proposal’s potential.

The Last Word

As you can probably tell by now, writing business proposals requires some careful consideration and planning. Proper grammar is a requisite of a successful proposal. Using correct words, terms and tense can make a great impression upon the recipient of the proposal. Shortcomings in these areas can diminish your proposal’s chances of success. Jargon is often called for in business proposals, but should be used only when needed.

You can’t afford to talk over the heads of your audience. With a little planning and careful proofing, you’re proposals will benefit from good grammar, meaning you’re likely to see more proposals accepted as a result.

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About

Todd Spear is a freelance blogger and journalist. He's helped media outlets and brands alike connect with their audiences. He's a regular contributor to Anthill Online, the Quote Roller Blog, and Naluda Magazine, among many other sites. You can connect with Todd via his website www.toddspear.net

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  • Todd Larson

    A very good proposal grammar treatise, but I found some unchecked errors in the text:

    1. “Basic Corp. Will inspect…” (“will” shouldn’t be capitalized)

    2. You introduce the topic “How to Use a Semicolon” but then jump to the subject of industry jargon without mentioning semicolons at all.

    3. “…you can feel free to use as much industry-speak as you deem is warranted to explain the actions you propose.” Awkward sentence. A better way to put it would be, “…you may use as much industry-speak as you deem necessary to explain the actions you propose.”

    4. “With a little planning and careful proofing, you’re proposals will benefit from good grammar…” This sentence should be carefully proofed to benefit from good grammar! Use “your,” not “you’re”!

    Otherwise, fine job.

  • http://twitter.com/quoteroller quoteroller

    Thank you, Todd! You were the first to notice and comment on here about the grammar mistakes and thus you are the winner of our weekly commenting prize! Congrats! Email me at jennifer@quoteroller.com so we can plan to send you a Kindle or Hardcopy fo this week’s book on Writing Business Proposals. :)

  • Cynthea Kinnaman

    I disagree that this is a good proposal treatise. I found it riddled with errors and difficult to read.

    Many of the sentences are awkward in construction. I found it a poor example of choosing the right words. You may want to review Strunk
    and White’s “Elements of Style’ for guidance on creating tighter, less awkward sentences.

    The opening paragraph should pull the reader in. Instead, the opening paragraph is an indication of the awkwardness of sentence structure to
    follow. Case in point: “But business proposals sometimes employ industry, or niche, specific jargon and writing conventions that must
    also be factored into the equation.”

    What’s the equation that you’re referring to?

    Also, for proper punctuation, I’d remove the comma after niche and replace it with a hyphen. However, as a proponent of jargon-free
    proposals, I disagree that there is any place in a proposal for using jargon.

    Industry-specific language is a different matter and shouldn’t be referred to in the same breath as jargon.

    • Jennifer

      Thank you for your comments. We will talk them into consideration with the next piece. If you’d like, since you’re a rockstar grammar guru, we’d be happy to publish your own treatise pulling on your experience in the world. :) thanks again for your feedback!

      • Memeee

        “…talk them into consideration?” And “with the next piece?” Huh?????? Also, thanks should be capitalized. Oy.

  • Ca Infotech India

    Nice one. :) I had been following few things, but this is a bit helpful.

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