The genre of business proposals: Getting readers to buy what you’re selling

So you’ve got an idea or service to promote? You’ll do much of that selling face-to-face. But you’re likely to need a written proposal in many cases. This post provides some basic guidance for writing a proposal (not a business plan, which is a specialized type of proposal) based on some relevant research.

Proposals are a critical genre in the business world.  (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by “genre,” see Pros have contextualized knowledge.) You can write proposals to sell big, complex ideas or smaller, simpler ones. Selling those big, complex ideas is BIG business. If you write those kind of proposals, you’re likely to belong to the APMP (formerly, Association of Proposal Management Professionals), which describes itself as “the worldwide authority for professionals dedicated to the process of winning business through proposals, bids, tenders, and presentations.” APMP members represent proposal writers in organizations like Boeing and proposal readers in organizations like the US federal government. These folks work hard to become pros at proposal writing. If they don’t, they starve.

Most of us aren’t involved in selling those big ideas. But selling smaller ideas to other people is something nearly everyone in a white collar job is expected to do — at least once in a while. The European Commission recognized this and asked many experts from across Europe to develop a guide for managing internal proposals for small- and medium-sized companies to support critical innovation.

Content and Structure of Proposals

So what do we know about successful proposals? Let me disclose that most of the studies on the proposal genre have dealt with grant proposals written by academic researchers or non-profit organizations rather than business proposals. That’s partly because it’s difficult to get organizations to share their proposals with the public.  After all, those documents include information most organizations don’t want to give away to competitors. The table shows the rhetorical moves (content + structure) found in three sub-types of proposals.

Order Move Business Proposal Research Grant Proposal Non-profit Grant Proposal

1

Establishing the territory

2

Establishing the gap

3

Stating the goal

4

Describing the means

5

Reporting prior work

6

Predicting results

7

Describing intended benefits

8

Establishing competence

9

Claiming Importance

10

Describing the schedule

11

Describing needed resources

[Updated August 15, 2013]

A Sample Business Proposal

Let’s consider how this research applies to an example document. Here’s a brief proposal created by business students who were selling a free service (a document audit) to a potential business client. Which of the moves from the table can you find?

My analysis located most of the moves shown under the column for business proposals in the table above. The proposal begins with Move 1, establishing the territory of communication audits. (The table below shows specific wording for each move.)

The sample document quickly presents Move 2 (establishing the gap) under the first heading. This section of the proposal is one of the longest. That seems important in an unsolicited proposal. In other words, the reader did not issue anything like a Request for Proposals (RFP), which would have signaled their interest BEFORE receiving the proposal. (See RFP Database for some examples.) The student writers were doing something more like “cold calling” when they delivered this proposal. So the writers have to persuade the potential client that they have a gap (problem or need) that the writers understand.

The prose of the second paragraph under the first heading begins with Move 3, stating the goal of the proposed service from the potential client’s perspective. One way to improve this proposal would have been to provide goals more specific to the proposal reader.  I know the student writers of this proposal had little knowledge of the reader’s organization at this stage.  In the workplace, it would be crazy to proceed without learning more about the potential client’s needs.

Under the second heading, the prose begins with Move 4, describing the means by which the writers will perform their service. It’s significant that this section is one of the two longest — best developed — within the document.

Order Move Examples from Document Audit Proposal

1

Establishing the territory This document describes the communication audit that we would like to perform for your organization.

2

Establishing the gap Poor oral and written communication cost an organization time and money.

3

Stating the goal The goal of our proposed communication audit is to maximize external communication by . . .

4

Describing the means We will determine the quality of the document through two types of interviews.

5

Reporting prior work

X

6

Predicting results

X

8

Establishing competence

X

9

Claiming Importance

X

10

Describing the schedule

Table 1. Proposed Communication Audit Schedule

11

Describing needed resources We need two things from you:

  • One document (preferably in electronic format) from an author representing your organization
  • Thirty minutes for an interview with that author

7

Describing intended benefits By participating, you will not only help our team learn more about workplace communication but also help your organization realize several benefits through improvement of an important organizational message.

In our sample, the last portion under the second heading accomplishes Move 10, describing the schedule, by incorporating a table of intermediate steps/goals and their projected dates.

The brief prose under the third heading counts as Move 11, describing needed resources. I call the rhetorical purpose of the prose under the final heading as the “call to action” typical of most business correspondence. It’s not captured in the table of moves identified from research sources because all but one of those studies focused on lengthier proposals that would not have been presented in a letter format. Such documents would appear in the format of a formal report with a cover page, table of contents, appendices, etc. However, research on email business proposals hoaxes has identified this move in the corpus of documents studied.

Final Words

In sum, the sample document provides enough of the expected content — and expected arrangement of that content — to get most readers to recognize it as a proposal. As always in workplace writing, one size does not fit all. The rhetorical context of a specific proposal determines the most effective content development, as well as its organization and style. Nevertheless, the relative emphasis on establishing the gap (Move 1) and describing the means (Move 4) is typical of the proposals studied by researchers. Proposals are essentially problem-solution arguments.

This sample proposal was successful in soliciting the reader as a client for the students’ proposed document audit service. Partly because the price of the service (FREE) was right.  And partly because business people like to help out students. But also, in part, because the writers established a problem with meaning for the reader and described a solution that was reasonable in terms the reader could understand and trust. The reader bought what these proposal writers were selling.

Research Sources

I haven’t listed sources in past contributions on writing a genre because I assumed readers at Pros Write weren’t interested. Some feedback suggests I was wrong.  Instead of cluttering the body of the post with citations, I’ve opted to provide you with a simple list of sources. I’m happy to answer questions about which source provided which findings mentioned above for anyone who asks.

Chiluwa, I. (2009). The discourse of digital deceptions and ‘419’ emails. Discourse Studies, 11, 635-660.

Connor, U. and Mauranen, A. (1999). Linguistic analysis of grant proposals: European Union research grants. English for Specific Purposes, 18, 47-62.

Connor, U. (2000). Variation in rhetorical moves in grant proposals of US humanists and scientists. Text, 20, 1-28.

Halleck, G.B. and Connor, U. (2006). Rhetorical moves in TESOL conference proposals. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5, 70-86.

Lagerwerf, L. and Bossers, E. (2002). Assessing business proposals: Genre conventions and audience response in document design. Journal of Business Communication, 39, 437-460.

Reave, L. (2002). Promoting innovation in the workplace: The internal proposal. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 8-21.

8 thoughts on “The genre of business proposals: Getting readers to buy what you’re selling

  1. For what it’s worth, I found Table 1 very confusing. I was seeing the X marks as check marks, so I was thinking why you have listed so many steps even though only one or two are in each proposal type. I didn’t realize you mean the items with the X’s are “crossed out” until I kept on and read the prose after the table.

    I think it’s a very bad idea to use “X” to mean “it doesn’t apply”. When there are blank boxes and some are X’d, people are going to interpret those X’s as “these are the ones that matter.” I think it’s better to either write “n/a” instead of “X”, or include the “✓” check marks in addition to the “X” crosses.

  2. This is a really great write up on the nuances of different styles of proposals. I appreciate your observation about business proposals. When you search the web, most of the results are on writing comprehensive business plans. It is also great how yo point out that the skill of proposal writing is about conveying ideas, something which all professionals have to do at one time or another. The only observation I would make about your first table (describing the content and structure of proposals) is that describing the schedule (point 10) is also important in academic and nonprofit proposals. Funders want to know your timeline and that your proposed project or program is feasible. Also including logic models that link goals and objectives to activities and outcomes is also increasingly becoming a standard part of nonprofit and academic proposals.

  3. Pingback: Proposals: A Break Down | Business Writing

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