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.


  1. Timothy Danahy says

    I really enjoyed your webinar about getting appts with hard to get people. I am going to take your challenge and pick 10 and follow up 4 times. This was maybe the tonic I needed at this time! Need to fill the pipeline! I have two questions. 1. Will this work for Very large companies? 2. Sometimes finding the right person in a large company is like finding a needle in a haystack. Any shortcuts on that? We usually need to talk to a Facilities director who manages office outsorces people, or IT CIO type, and sometimes procurement.

    • Matt Handal says


      Thank you for participating in the webinar. These questions are a little off topic for this post. I will send you an email to respond.

  2. Hey Matt – I just skimmed this blog and I would add two other points: 1. Subheadings should be 5 words or less. Anything more loses its punch. 2. Subheadings should state, not explain. If someone needs the explanation, they’ll read the text that follows. I have an almost irresistible urge to edit your subheadings. LOL

    • Matt Handal says


      Thank you for contributing. Keep in mind how much of a weirdo I am.

      This could go down a rabbit hole. There are two common ways to do subheadings (or headings in general): “Benefit Based” and “Curiosity Based.”

      There is a long history of copywriting tactics and academic research that will point you to these two heading styles. Breakthrough Advertising and other classic copywriting books go into good detail about headings (their purpose and how to use them). For an in-depth, research-based, take on headings and subheadings…chapter nine of Persuasive Advertising gets pretty in-depth on the subject.

      You won’t see the word “punch” in any of these books. And while I have seen some suggest 6-8 words being the optimal length of headlines for “low involvement products,” I haven’t seen any research supporting five words being the optimal length of a subheading. If you have any material supporting that, please share it.

      There is experimental evidence that the use of “informative subheadings’ in long copy increases recall.

      I could write a whole long post about headings and subheadings. But I’m not sure anybody would read it. :/

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