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Proposal Writing Format – My Proposal Writing Formula

My Proposal Writing Formula

Now that we understand some basic rules governing proposal writing and the different sections of a proposal, let’s look at the basic formula for how to write a proposal. Let’s learn the proposal writing format.

The Proposal Writing Format

The formula is, in essence, a story. Stories have always been a very effective tool for persuasion. They have been used to convey messages and influence behaviors since before the written word.

The formula also relies upon the use of a series of “persuasion techniques” known as the weapons of influence. If you look carefully, you will see this same basic formula being applied to everything from television ads to local news stories. The formula is used so much because it is very effective at influencing people’s decisions.

The formula is as follows:

  • Set the Stage (Once Upon a Time)
  • State the Challenge (Damsel in Distress)
  • Explain the Solution (Hero Saves the Day)
  • Describe the Result (Happily Ever After)

This basic formula can be used to write nearly every kind of proposal content. Let us detail each part of the formula.

Set the Stage

During the first part of the formula, we describe the setting of our story. The beginning of your content must give the reader a reason to read the rest. Usually, proposal content evokes the weapon of “social proof” during this portion. By doing this, you show that you are speaking about a client or situation that is so similar or familiar to the reader that they can relate. Our hope is after they read the content, the reader will see the proposed solution as a solution that is also appropriate for them.

State the Challenge

Every good story has a damsel in distress. When we talk about a damsel, this could be a man, woman, firm, city, agency, or even the reader. The only real criterion for a damsel in distress is that they have a problem or challenge that they can’t seem to solve without some help. Again, we want to make sure that the reader can see themselves in our damsel in distress.

Explain the Solution

During this part of the formula, we describe the solution and give examples of the solution in action. In most proposal content, you or your firm will be the hero of our story. The solution is how you solved the problem and saved the damsel in distress. In the case of a new service offering, this might also take the form of telling how the problem could be solved in a new and better way.

Describe the Result

Everybody likes a happy ending. The conclusion of your content should state how solving the challenge results or resulted in a positive outcome.

Below, I’ve provided an example of how proposal content might use this formula.

Project Description Using Formula

Set the Stage

Pilster Pharmaceuticals is a world leader in providing life-saving and life-extending therapies for patients with cancer. Respected as one of the worlds most productive and innovative research organizations…

State the Challenge

Pilster Pharmaceuticals was in need of a new 150,000 sq. ft. Process Research and Development Facility on their Chicago Campus.

The scope of the new facility included three laboratory floors, which included BSL-4 BioSafety Laboratory (containment and hydrogenation) areas and a ground-level entry floor.

The building’s plan needed to accommodate a variety of specialized research support spaces, administrative offices, research staff offices, conference rooms, and an auditorium.

Explain the Solution

XYZ Engineering was able to achieve key client success factors by utilizing our ability to understand and communicate Pilster Pharmaceuticals’ culture to the entire design team and keep the project on schedule, saving an estimated $5,000,000 that could have resulted from change orders.

Based on our experience with Pilster Pharmaceuticals’s master specification guidelines, we requested a review of the original specifications of the project completed by the in-house design team before final approval.

This action allowed us to uncover potential problems in the design ahead of time in various areas including the fuel hood elevations, electrical routing, and the UPS equipment. This resulted in increased system reliability, substantial cost savings and an estimated savings of 1.5 months in design time.

Describe the Result

Designed and constructed within the initial $20M estimate, Pilster Pharmaceuticals’s new state-of-the art facility helps the company continue its valued research into successful treatments for cancer patients.

Variations Of The Formula

Sometimes the requirements of the client or the format of a document inhibits your ability to use the full formula. Resumes and forms sometimes fall into this category.

There are several different ways to approach team resumes, depending on the services you provide. Some firms use bullet lists or the project name followed by a brief description to illustrate previous experience on a resume. These resume formats are typically used by design firms that work with standard structures like schools, homes, and churches.

Government resume forms, like the SF330, require you to format information in a very specific way. In these situations, you may need to use a truncated version of the formula that uses just the last two parts. For example:

Lead Electrical Designer. Joe designed the electrical systems for the Bank of Canada’s $2B data storage and processing center. The center achieved a reliability rating of 99.9999% uptime.

Read The Other Sections Of My Ultimate Guide To Proposal Writing

The article you just read is one section of my Ultimate Guide To Proposal Writing.

Click on the links below to read the other parts.

Business Proposal Templates: What You Need To Know

Business Proposal Templates: What You Need To Know

If you are new to writing business proposals, you would benefit from a business proposal template.

Free Business Proposal Templates

I’ve provided links for different proposal templates that you can download for free. However, these won’t be as helpful as you think because they are often missing critical pieces. Plus, they often provide a design but don’t tell you what to put where.

In reality, most of the designs are pretty much unprofessional.

Paid Proposal Templates

GraphicRiver has some really neat proposal templates like these:

You have to pay for them and you need Adobe Indesign to use most of them.

But they are worlds better than the free templates out there.

How To Create You Own Proposal Template

You can create your own template. Just open up Microsoft Word and create a document with these sections.

  • Table of Contents
  • Cover Letter/Executive Summary
  • Project Understanding
  • Scope of Work/Approach
  • Project Management/Execution Plan
  • Relevant Experience
  • Our Team
  • Pricing

How To Make Your Proposal Template Work For You

I’m not a graphic designer. You may not have any formal graphic design training either. So, how can someone like us quickly put together a professional-looking proposal?

The Unspoken Truth About Proposal Template Design

Here’s the unspoken truth about proposal design. If you have a well-designed template, you don’t need any graphic design knowledge or capabilities to produce proposals that look good.

All you need is that template and minimal knowledge of page layout software like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXpress. In some cases, you can get away with a little Microsoft Word know how.

But what should be in your template? Today, I’m going to discuss three elements that should be in every single proposal template.

If yours does not have these, it’s time for a new template.

Readable Typography

One of the biggest challenges you’ll come across when working with designers will often be typography.

Just look at one reader’s frustration with her graphic designer:

“She is a really talented graphic designer, but wants everything to look like a magazine. No bullet points, no bolded text, nothing that she might consider bad graphic design.”

Sure, their body type will look beautiful. It will be some fancy san serif typeface, 9 or 10 points in size.

But give that proposal to a 55-year-old engineer, and they’ll struggle to read it.

That’s a problem because the clients evaluating your proposals are not typically young. In fact, they’re often old farts (like me)! 🙂

If it’s hard to read, they won’t read it.

The solution: make readability the #1 priority for your typography.

You can achieve this by using what’s known as the “golden ratio” to achieve the perfect balance of font size, line height, and line width.

Here’s a chart that illustrates this concept.

Please note, the measurement in this chart is in pixels, not points. 

Next, you want to use a serif font for your body just like you would find in a best-selling book. I suggest Baskerville because of a study that showed the use of that font can help build trust.

Focus Boxes

You may have heard of “callout boxes.” These are boxes that you can use for quotes or highlight key pieces of information (like differentiators). Callout boxes are a staple of proposal templates.

But what are focus boxes?

The people evaluating your proposals rarely, if ever, have enough time to read every word in your proposal. Yet, they ask you for full resumes, detailed project writeups, etc.

This creates a conundrum that focus boxes solve. Focus boxes tell the reader why the person in the resume is the perfect fit for this assignment. Or it will show why the previous assignment, that we’ve provided a detailed write-up for, is relevant to the contract we’re proposing on.

Focus boxes give clients the information they need in the time they have. And they allow you to be both persuasive and compliant.

Here’s an example of a focus box in my premium template (included with Win Writing).


Resume focus boxes usually highlight 3-4 key reasons this person is a great fit.

Multiple Standard Covers

One of the biggest frustrations I hear from proposal professionals is the enormous time sink putting proposal covers together is.

Many architects and engineers (their bosses) place a level of importance on the cover design that far outweighs any influence it would have on selection.

When I worked with HOK, the biggest architecture firm in the US, they had a solution: standard covers.

Your proposal template should have multiple standard cover designs so you can provide the powers that be a few different options for each

Here are the three covers included in my template.

This is my first standard cover in the premium template included in Win Writing.

Here is the second cover choice. You can easily change the colors and elements in templates like this to fit your brand.

Here’s the third cover option. You can use either of these options without needing to change anything else in the template. 


You Don’t Have To Be A Designer

Go out and commission your own proposal template with these features. Or, if you have the skill set, create one yourself.

Read: How To Get Good Graphic Design For Cheap

Or you can save yourself the frustration and just use mine. Learn more about the proposal templates in Win Writing at this link.

Read The Other Sections Of My Ultimate Guide To Proposal Writing

The article you just read is one section of my Ultimate Guide To Proposal Writing.

Click on the links below to read the other parts.

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