Unusual advice on how to begin a proposal
Thomas Heath / 2011
Decision makers love to say ‘I only ever read the executive summary’. And the way you start your proposal tends to seal its fate. It’s your Dragon’s Den moment: 45 seconds to convince a tough audience. Better make it good.
But I see many proposal writers get overwhelmed by the occasion. The point gets lost in a parade of corporate niceties, with much cap doffing and polite procrastination: ‘we’re delighted to submit this proposal for your attention… the company is committed to…’. That kind of thing.
Look up advice on writing executive summaries and you’ll find differing lists of items you might want to include: mission statements, team members, and so on. Combine those lists together and you’ve got a monster. Meanwhile, your dragon’s flown away.
What to do? First be clear what ‘executive summary’ means:
1. You’re summarising an idea, not a document.
2. You want an executive outcome — decisions, action.
So how can you use the executive summary to sell your idea and achieve the outcome? By telling a story.
Seriously. All stories have three basic parts: a situation that interests the audience, a challenge to that situation, and an answer to that challenge. Smart thinkers such as Barbara Minto and Neil Rackham have shown how these ingredients make a magic mixture for winning hearts and minds. Here’s a recipe*:
1. Say something positive about the situation, which is undeniably true (obvious, in fact) and sparks the most interest.
2. Describe the challenge or complication to the situation that’s prompted this document and ask: what’s to be done?
3. Present your answer to this challenge — with fanfare, because this is the big idea that defines and organises everything else your document should say.
Can you see the story structure in this post? I began with the spark: executive summaries matter. I described the challenge: how to make them effective? And I gave my answer: use the power of storytelling.
It works whatever the subject of your proposal:
– Situation: pipeline safety matters
– Challenge: safety being compromised
– Answer: this gadget will fix it.
Customer service policy:
– Situation: our products can empower our customers
– Challenge: poor technical support is holding them back
– Answer: we need this new support package.
– Situation: we depend on our suppliers
– Challenge: we’ve now got to choose: A or B?
– Answer: Supplier B is best (as our document will explain).
Something for the weekend:
– Situation: We love family outings
– Challenge: how to keep up with Grandpa + little Ben
– Answer: Let’s go surfing.
So — to sell your idea by the end of the executive summary, ditch the niceties, look your reader in the eye and tell them a story.
*based on guidelines for introductions from Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle.