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The Ultimate Guide To Writing Skimmable Proposals

The Ultimate Guide To Writing Skimmable Proposals

It can be overwhelming. When you look at some RFPs, you can’t believe how much information they ask for.

Why do they need all this information?

But it’s the “golden rule.” They have the gold, so they make the rules. And we’re just playing the game by the rules they’ve laid out.

So, you spend hours putting together a lengthy proposal. It has approaches, plans, procedures, forms, references, resumes, declarations, answers to stupid questions, project write-ups, etc.

But all your hard work creates a major dilemma for your client.

The Classic Proposal Evaluation Dilemma Created The Need For Skimmable Proposals

Now your client is faced with the classic proposal evaluation dilemma. They’ve asked you for more information than they have time to read.

So, what do they do? They’ll skim all the proposals and make a decision based on bits of information from here and there.

You may have spent hours crafting sections that build up to a huge benefit or detail a superior differentiator. But they never even read it.

And I’ll be the first one to say that it’s a clucked-up situation.

Luckily, there is time-tested hack that lets you play by their rules but also get your key messages across.

Building The Skimmable Proposal

A “skimmable” proposal has all the detail clients ask for. But it displays information in a way that makes it close to impossible for evaluators to miss your key points.

Once you understand the key building blocks of skimmable proposals, you’ll be well on your way to using them as an almost-unfair advantage.

Benefit-Based Subheadings Make Your Key Points Unavoidable

See what I did there?

I’ve never seen a proposal and complained there were too many subheadings. Your proposals probably need a lot more subheadings.

But when proposals use subheadings, it often makes me cringe. Here’s an example.

I recently looked at a proposal section that was supposed to outline the team’s unique qualifications. Here’s one of the subheadings they used.


What?!?! That subheading made me vomit in my mouth a little bit.

First off, that’s language used by insurance adjusters…not someone you would hire to design your building!

But the bigger problem is 99% of skimmers would skip that section, based on the subheading.

The whole section described their process for delivering easily maintainable facilities at a lower construction cost. That’s a great message you certainly want the client to see.

You’ve got to make it nearly impossible for potential clients to miss your key messages. Using benefit-based subheadings is a great strategy to accomplish this.

They should have used:

“Our XYZ Process Delivers Easily Maintainable Facilities At A Lower Construction Cost”

Your proposal is not a new blockbuster film. Nobody is concerned about spoilers. Give them the spoiler up front. They’ll read more if they want to.

First off, use subheadings liberally. Second, assume your clients won’t read your text. Then identify the key benefit in your subheading.

Focus Boxes Sell Your People And Experience

We spend a lot of time putting together resumes and project experience to sell our qualifications. But evaluators simply don’t have the time to read all that we wrote.

If you are lucky, each resume may get 10 seconds of someone’s attention. Within those ten seconds, you need to make it easy for someone to get a feel for who the person is and why he or she is perfect for this assignment.

In resumes, focus boxes contain a few bullet points that identify exactly why this person is perfect for the assignment. In project write-ups, they identify why the project example is extremely relevant to the client’s project.

Within other sections in your proposal, you can use focus boxes to reinforce key messages.

Less Text Means More Of Your Proposal Will Be Read

One of the many books out there on proposal writing says cutting your proposal in half would make it better.

In many cases, I agree with that.

Proposals are that one shot you have to get yourself into the opportunity. So, we want to give it our best go. As a result, we often write more than we need to…even when there are page limits.

But here’s the problem. You cannot fully control what an evaluator does or doesn’t read. If you give them a three-page cover letter with two fantastic differentiators…they may never read those fantastic differentiators.

But if you gave them a single page with two lines on it (your two differentiators), you’ve just dramatically increased the chances that they’ll be read.

I’m using an extreme example to illustrate my point. But you have to realize that every word you add decreases the likelihood that the previous word will be read.

When writing proposals, every word must earn its way into the page. If a word, a sentence, or a paragraph doesn’t earn its way into the page…delete it.

Use less, more impactful, text in your proposals. This increases the odds that your words will be read.

Attention-Grabbing Images Bring Eyes To Your Text

I wrote a whole post on the purpose of graphics and images in proposals. So, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on this.

Here’s the short version. The sole purpose of graphics in your proposal is to get people to read your words.

Service firms don’t win contracts because they used great stock images in their proposal. They win contracts or get shortlisted based on the words and numbers in their proposals.

You can use images to draw the reader’s attention to key points or messages.

Plopping a graphic or image in just to “fill out the page” is pretty stupid. Use images to help drive key points or messages home.

If you are skimming a page and see a compelling image or graphic, you might be drawn to read the caption or the words within that graphic. Better yet, you may decide to read the body text that surrounds that graphic.

Themes Hammer Your Key Message Home

One of my mentors, Laura Ricci, outlined in “The Magic Of Winning Proposals” how to use themes to reinforce your key message.

The proper use of a theme will create an anchor in your client’s mind. You can write statements throughout your proposal that connect to this anchor. This creates a feedback loop that reinforces your most important message.

While there has been a lot written about proposal themes, the tactic is best outlined in “The Magic Of Winning Proposals.”

Psychology Grabs And Maintains Reader Attention

How do people in the media business get your attention and maintain it? They use psychology.

There’s an entire chapter in Proposal Development Secrets about using psychology to create a “slippery slope” that will maintain your reader’s attention.

It’s an advanced tactic that has a lot of nuance. But it can be very powerful when combatting skimmers.

Now It’s Your Turn

What tactics do you use to make your proposals “skimmable?” Share what you do in the comments.

Marketing Budgets: 5 Easy Building Blocks Nobody Talks About

Marketing Budgets 5 Easy Building Blocks Nobody Talks About

One of the most challenging things you can be tasked to do is define a firm’s marketing budget.

What’s the right marketing budget for a small architecture firm in Wayne, PA? What’s the right marketing budget for the largest construction firm in Michigan?

Try as you might to find a legitimate rule of thumb (5-13% of total revenue is a common one), there is no “apples-to-apples” comparison that answers, “how much should our firm spend on marketing?

But there are a few rarely mentioned building blocks you should consider before finalizing your marketing budget. When talking about marketing budgets, a lot of people just assume a percentage of total revenue is the only way to come up with a legitimate number.

But that’s not true.

In fact, there are some people who say, with a few building blocks, you can “math” your way to a multi-million-dollar business.

I’m going to explain how to do that. But first, let’s talk about some of those metrics and how they relate to your marketing budget.

Customer Acquisition Cost

The customer acquisition cost is how much it costs you to gain a new client. One way to get this number is to add up everything you spent to obtain new clients over the last five years. Then divide that by the number of new clients you gained in the last 5 years.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say you determine that your cost of acquisition is $15,000 per client. With this information, you can surmise that it will cost you $75,000 to gain five new clients this year.

With this information alone, you can come up with a very simple budget number. Let’s say you spend $20,000 a year maintaining your current clients and want to add five new clients. Your budget would be $95,000.

But it gets even more interesting with the next few metrics.

Average Assignment Value

Average assignment value is pretty self-explanatory. What’s your average fee per assignment? An assignment can be a task order, contract, purchase, or project…whatever. Just be consistent with what you track.


Profit is simply what you make on an assignment after your costs. Another way to calculate it is the percent profit your firm records at the end of each year.

For this discussion, let’s say your average assignment value is $100,000 and your profit is 10%.

Here is where you can easily get tripped up.

“I’m making $10,000 in profit, but it costs me $15,000 to acquire that client? I’m losing money!”

Not necessarily. That’s where this next metric comes into play.

Average Customer Lifetime Value

The average customer lifetime value is the total fees you receive from the average client over the life of that relationship.

Let’s say the average lifetime value of your clients is $1M. Since your profit is 10%, you would earn a profit of $100,000 from each client.

In this scenario, your customer acquisition cost is just 1.5% of the profit you receive from each client.

So, you are actually not losing money when your customer acquisition cost is $15,000. In fact, you can spend far more than that and still turn a profit.

But The Numbers Might Be Even Better

Depending on your firm’s procedures, they might calculate profit after marketing expenses are already accounted for. So that cost of customer acquisition appears in the cost side of the equation, not the profit side.

In the scenario we discussed above, you could theoretically spend $15,000 to acquire a new client, do the first assignment for free, and still break even.

Customer Retention Costs

Just keep in mind that you should also consider customer retention costs, which are very common in service businesses.

“Math” Your Way To A Multi-Million-Dollar Business

Let’s say your average client relationship is five years. You would earn an average of $200,000 per year from each client (two assignments).

How would you get to a five million dollar per year business?

$200,000 x 25 clients = $5,000,000

Therefore, you would need 25 clients (and 50 assignments) per year to be at $5M.

Building Blocks To A Better Marketing Budget

Rules of thumb give you a general idea of the appropriate range for your marketing budget. And maybe that’s good enough. But with some historical information and a few building blocks, you can create a better marketing budget.

Let’s calculate a quick marketing budget, using the example above, to build a $5M/year business into a $7M/year business.

Let’s say your conservative estimate of revenues you expect from existing clients is $2M. You’ll need to generate $5M from new clients.

Remember from our example, you need 25 clients per year to generate $5M. We also know that our customer acquisition cost is $15,000.

25 x $15,000 = $375,000

Now, tag on your customer retention costs. Let’s say you did your research and figured out those are about $50,000 per year.

$375,000 + $50,000 = $425,000

Your total marketing budget is $425,000.

As a percentage, that’s 8.5% of last year’s $5M revenue. So, it’s in that 5-13% range (which is a good sanity check).

Using building blocks and historical data gives the advantage of being able to justify the logic of how you got to your marketing budget number.

Now It’s Your Turn

What have you found helpful when developing a marketing budget? Leave your response in the comments and help others build a better marketing budget.

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