4 Proposal Publishing Tips from a Mad Man

You slave over your proposal, revision by revision, fussing over each word. You check and recheck each line, each phrase. You want your creation to be read and remembered.

Using InDesign, you and your team unleash your creativity and transform your labor of love into a work of art.

Thereby ruining it.

As David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising (and the model for Mad Men’s Don Draper), once said:

“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

Most A/E/C proposals require a fair amount of text; therefore, it takes knowledge of good page design in order to sell your services. As Ogilvy wrote in his classic book Ogilvy on Advertising:

“Look at the news magazines which have been successful in attracting readers: Time and Newsweek in the United States, L’Express and Le Point in France, Der Spiegel in Germany, L’Espresso in Italy, Cambio 16 in Spain. They all use the same graphics…”

The consistent principles followed by those news magazines also apply to proposal writing. Here are four tried-and-true principles from Ogilvy that I recommend to my clients.

1. Ogilvy on headlines

“On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.…The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit.” “Cross-heads keep the reader marching forward.”

In the main body of your proposal (especially the approach section), use meaningful headings and cross headings, which do the following:

  • Draw in the reader,
  • Signal your main points in advance, which can improve comprehension,
  • Help them rediscover your main points, if they scan the page again, and
  • Make their job easier, for which you will earn bonus points, even if only subconscious ones.

Below is a great example for a cross heading that informs the reader and sells a benefit.

LiDAR Scanning Eliminates Hand Measuring
Saves Time and Money


It doesn’t have to shout at you like a front page headline, “EXTRA, EXTRA Read All About It!!” Rather, it merely needs to help the reader demarcate between your logical ideas.


2.  Regarding fonts

“sanserif…is hard to read; we are accustomed to serifs in books, magazines and newspapers.”

For years, I’ve implored proposal writers to use serif font in the body of their proposals. I find that graphic designers and desktop publishing professionals sacrifice legibility for the purported sake of aesthetics. Beware if someone asks you, “That looks nice, doesn’t it?” That self-congratulatory phrase disguised as a question may signal style choices that will undermine the proposal’s effectiveness. Instead, ask, “Does it communicate?”

With regard to style over function, architects seem to transgress more often than engineers do. I surmise that serifs offend their design sensibilities and are considered inelegant. Balderdash! Open up Architectural Digest and see what you discover. There are hundreds of elegant serif fonts, for example, the newer font Rockwell, and the more familiar Garamond.


3.  Regarding line width

“The copy is often set in one column of 120 characters or more – too wide to be readable.”

Ogilvy was relentless about setting his copy in three columns. It made people pay attention because the format resembled what they were accustomed to reading in newspapers and magazines.

Even today, research shows that shorter line length creates excitement for the reader, and they’re more likely to continue to the next line. Try to keep the lines around forty characters long, regardless of font size.

Most proposal developers use single columns because it allows them to fit more words on the page. Rather than asking your desktop publishing expert to cram more words onto a page, find a good editor.


4.  Regarding captions

“[four times as many] people read the captions under illustrations than read the body copy, so never use an illustration without putting a caption under it.”

Ogilvy’s 40-year-old, pre-Internet assertions still holds true for today’s content—printed or online. For those decision makers who skim proposals rather than read them line-by-line, captions can make a difference.

I recommend using deep captions of 2-3 sentences underneath the image. When superimposed, they are less noticeable and harder to read, which defeats the purpose.

The best opportunities for deep captions are in the similar projects (aka relevant experience) section. Even though a picture is worth a thousand words, don’t presume that the reader knows what you’re trying to communicate. Therefore, if you have an image, caption it.


Invest 35 minutes, instantly win more work

You don’t need a degree in graphic design or go to night school to produce a great looking proposal that sells. You don’t even need InDesign—Publisher or Word will do just fine. Here’s how you can spend 35 minutes to dramatically improve your next proposal.

5 minutes. Open and look at a few popular news magazines (ones with stories, not just celebrity pictures), and you will see that these four practices have worked consistently for decades of print media.

30 minutes. In order to understand tried-and-true practices and apply them to your winning proposals, read chapters 1, 2, 7, and 11 of Ogilvy On Advertising.

Stop being creative. Follow the tried-and-true and you will stop ruining your labors of love.


Moreover, you will win more work.




The Second Question to Answer in Your Proposal

After you answer the question, “Why now?” you must then address the question “What do they really want?” By answering the first question, “Why now?” you 1) establish credibility that you understand the client’s goals, and 2) you start with them instead of you, thereby engaging them and becoming memorable.

Even though “What do they really want?” is the second question to answer, it is the most critical to setting up your argument for why the prospect should choose you to perform the work. This question can often be difficult to answer; however, if you have done your homework, it will be a snap. This post will explain overt and covert client wants and how to address them.

What They Want Part I: Overt Reasons

Research tells us what clients ask for from professional services firms that help them gain rewards or avoid risk. In the Wellesley Hills Group and RainToday.com’s benchmark report, How Clients Buy, most buyers want you to deliver these intangibles, among others:

  • Reliability. Deliver what you promise.
  • Accessible. Respond when I need you.
  • Importance. Make me feel I am important to you.
  • Service. Deliver great service [My note: not just great deliverables.].
  • Prudence. Do your homework before you make recommendations.
  • Research. Stay on top of trends.
  • Listening. Understand my business.

The authors have more to say about this important subject in their fine book, Professional Services Marketing: How the Best Firms Build Premier Brands, Thriving Lead Generation Engines, and Cultures of Business Development Success

I refer to these wants as “overt wants,” because we know that clients expect them as part of the selection criteria. You may be thinking, “Jim, those are exactly the qualities that make us stand out from our competitors. They are what we promise our clients and we put those ideas in every proposal.” I know you do. Here’s the problem…most proposal writers incorporate these overt wants into proposals in this manner:

  • We are reliable.
  • We are responsive.
  • Our clients are important to us.
  • We provide unmatched service…and so on.

The problem with these phrases is that anyone can use them, and they do. I see them in almost every proposal. Just saying it doesn’t differentiate you from your competitors, and you will likely be forgettable rather than memorable. There are three better, easy ways to address overt buyer values:

  1. Use client testimonials (this is the first of my 26 proposal tips).
  2. Tell stories that connect to those values, and
  3. Provide facts that prove it.

Client Testimonials

No one speaks to your prospect more forcefully than someone who has used your service, benefited from it, and is willing to say so. Many proposals include client testimonials. Here’s the problem, though. Most people do not use client quotations effectively. Weak or unnoticed testimonials can cost you a deal. Here are three surefire tips for getting your past and present clients to help sell you, make them:

  1. Specific,
  2. Relevant, and
  3. Prominent.

A vague: “Rupert was highly professional and great to work with” is not as powerful as the more specific “The city manager said it couldn’t be done…but Rupert did it by pushing the team weekly to make design recommendations that could be implemented more quickly. This helped us meet schedule and protect the funding, which was at risk.” The statement needs to be relevant to the buyer value, not just an arbitrary endorsement, in this case, your reliability. Do not bury testimonials in the body text—put them in a prominent callout box or sidebar. When scoring your proposal, the testimonial may be what your prospect recalls.

Tell Stories

The power of stories is universal and highly effective in selling. By telling stories of your projects and the people in them—not just the artifacts—you will become memorable. Here is an excerpt from my book, Win More Work, that I use to describe how I uncovered covert reasons clients buy:

[My first engineering client] shared a proposal with me and asked me to do an evaluation. It was a winning proposal for a neighborhood sidewalk. As he handed it to me, he explained that sidewalks can have some tricky issues, especially when there is water nearby, changes in terrain, and (yawn) right of way matters. This sidewalk happened to be in a tony residential neighborhood with well-manicured lawns devoid of intrusive sidewalks that would break up their continuity and beauty…. Residents with influence were unhappy. Knowing that, I saw immediately that this project wasn’t merely about pouring concrete next to a road; it was about managing stakeholders.

[I said to him] “I think you missed an opportunity to address a big need that the client had, which was stakeholder management. Even though you won the work, you would’ve won it going away had you described specifics to handling the public on contentious projects like this one.”

Provide Facts

I’ll give one powerful example here that says it all. Instead of “We always meet budget,” write, “We have written one change order in the past 5 years.”

What They Really Want Part II: Covert Reasons

Part II of the question, “What do they really want?” is deeper because the wants tend to be covert, not overt. It helps to have an understanding of why people really buy. In Rapid Response Advertising, Geoff Ayling lists fifty reasons why people buy. Many of those reasons have to do with consumer behavior, therefore I have pared down the list and paraphrased six prime reasons that underlie the A/E buyer’s decision:

  1. To attract praise – because almost everybody loves it,
  2. To access opportunities – because they open the doors to good things,
  3. To leave a legacy – because that’s a way to live forever,
  4. To avoid criticism – which nobody wants,
  5. To avoid trouble – because trouble is never a joy, and
  6. To avoid effort – because nobody loves to work harder than necessary.

I like to boil ideas down to simple categories and what could be simpler than two categories 1) to attain something desirable or 2) to avoid something undesirable. Here is how I would organize the above six reasons along with a specific example for each.



Attract praise: be acknowledged by the governor Avoid criticism: stay out of the newspaper
Access opportunities: get promoted Stay out of trouble: be passed over…or fired
Leave a legacy: have your name engraved on the plaque on the building or bridge Prevent wasted effort and time: spend more time with family or on matters that require more of your time


Unless they trust you as a confidant, clients don’t often tell you that they want praise, or to leave a legacy, or to avoid criticism! These remain unspoken, or covert, needs. Rarely will someone admit fear or ambition. After all, isn’t ambition why they murdered Julius Caesar? Once you understand the underlying reasons, you must reframe them in safe language that hits the mark. Address covert needs in the cover letter, the executive summary, and at the beginning and close of the approach sections. Here are some examples.

To indirectly address the client’s need to avoid wasted effort and time, you might write, “We understand that this is one of many concurrent projects you are juggling, and we believe that we can help prevent unnecessary effort, so you can focus on other priorities without losing sight of this one.”

Or this example:

To address someone’s covert desire to leave a legacy because their retirement is imminent, you might write, “When this project is over, you’ll be able to look back and say, ‘We improved or replaced all inadequate elementary school cafeterias in the district.’”

Win More Work

What’s next? The next (third) question to answer will be, “Why me?” The answer to this question will be your best argument for why your prospect should hire you and will directly connect to question two. If you know what the answers to overt and covert questions “What do they really want?” you will be able to connect your argument clearly to what they are really buying and you will win more work.

The Power of Both: What Pawn Stars Can Teach Us About Writing Winning Proposals

99% (plus or minus 1%) of professional resumes I’ve seen in proposals describe the A/E professional in terms of the artifacts they have designed over the years, for example,  schools, highways, bridges, and banks. The artifacts are part of the story, but not the whole story. After all, decision-makers aren’t really buying schools, highways, bridges, and banks–they are buying relationships with people.

I noticed a great example of this in an unlikely place, “Pawn Stars,” the weekly reality TV show on The History Channel. The show is set in a family-owned Las Vegas pawn shop, where almost any imaginable item can come through that door on a given day. People watch “Pawn Stars” in large part to learn about interesting artifacts that customers bring in, yet much of the show’s appeal clearly has to do with the characters who work there.  Folks may be enticed to watch by the interesting artifacts or characters, or both. I call this “the power of both.” One short program description illustrates what I mean:

“The guys check out a Japanese machine gun camera; Chumley and Corey take a look at some sketches drawn by Spider-Man creator Stan Lee; Rick and the Old Man eye a $1,000 Federal Reserve note from 1918.”

If this were a contest of artifacts v. people, let’s see who wins:

    • Objects 3 (camera, sketches, note)
    • People 4 (Chumley, Corey, Rick, Old Man (5 people, if you count Stan Lee).

The people have it! The antics of the characters and the stories about the people create interest and an emotional connection. There are, of course, fans of the show who are annoyed by the staged bickering and antics of the characters and will assert that they are only interested in the artifacts. That said, some of their interest in the objects is derived from the stories about the people who may have created, owned, used, or are selling them. People still play an indispensable role in the story of the artifact. The power of both.

Selling professional services has the same need.Stories are the best way to create an emotional connection with decision-makers. In your professional bios, it is critical that you include a brief story or two about past projects and their people. Take a lesson in marketing from the producers of “Pawn Stars,” and use the power of both!


The First Question to Answer in Your Proposal: Why Now?

At the earliest opportunity in your proposal,  answer the question, “Why now?” Your answer should describe the business problem and its urgency. This sounds like one question, but it is really a two-in-one: Why? and Why now?

First, the why. You’ll want to describe the problem from the point of view of people, that is, the stakeholders. It is not enough to state, “Widening the road to add a center turn lane will speed up traffic.” The value of speeding up traffic may be obvious to engineers, drivers, city council members, and even people who don’t drive! Yet, moving traffic along faster doesn’t explicitly connect the requirement to the value for the user of the road; it is merely an accomplishment of the project.

Although you may think the benefit is obvious, don’t allow the decision-maker’s imagination to engage without your direction. Connect the accomplishment to a human to illustrate an outcome that people value. In this example, after you’ve written the accomplishment “speed up traffic,” you’ll add, “As a result, commuters will spend less time in their cars driving to work and enjoy more personal time to have a catch in the backyard with their daughters, read books about proposal writing to help them grow their business, or play online canasta.”

In short, describe the value to people, which most RFP writers rarely address in their descriptions of need. Don’t assume the value will be obvious. Try to visualize yourself as the stakeholder who will benefit from the project. If it is a local project and you are a user of the solution, this may not be difficult at all….

Examples of Answers to “Why now?”

Here’s a sample list of engineering design project benefits:

  • provide clean water, so we can live healthy lives
  • provide safety from natural disasters, so we can protect our lives, property, and prosperity
  • provide safety from foreign attacks, that is, for our defense
  • provide energy to power our homes, hospitals, and schools
  • build our communities
  • get us to work, to visit loved ones, and to get away and relax
  • encourage visits to national parks and historic landmarks
  • promote tourism in our region
  • attract business and create jobs
  • improve ease and flow of commerce
  • protect wildlife
  • make progress while preserving history
  • reduce the cost of food and other goods


The above is an excerpt from my new book for architects and engineers, Win More Work: How to Write Winning A/E/C Proposals

New book “Win More Work”

I am excited to announce that my publisher, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), has made Win More Work: How to Write Winning A/E/C Proposals available in multiple electronic formats in its bookstore. Win More Work will help architects, engineers, and their marketing professionals write memorable proposals that trounce the competition. In it you will learn the difference-makers of memorable, winning proposals. Here are some of the big ideas in the book:

  1. Our belief in our “betterness” (a term I coined) creates an identical twins problem for decision-makers.
  2. When we look like an identical competitor, we make it difficult for judges to judge. Complex decisions make judges lazy, so they default to either what can be easily recalled or to gut feel. Instead of asserting your betterness, be memorable instead.
  3. Proposals comprise the Three-S elements that you must address in order to be memorable:
    • Substance
    • Structure
    • Style
  4. The Substance answers these questions:
    • Why now?
    • What do they really want?
    • Why you?
  5. Structure makes your proposal memorable:
    • First IT, then THEM, then you
    • Why you should start strong and not close with new information
  6. In written proposals and interview presentations:
    • Tell stories
    • Stop the BABBL and avoid the Vomit Twins (Visual and Verbal)
    • Use a repetitive phrase (motif)
  7. In interviews, YOU, not your slides, are the presentation.
  8. Create memorable visuals:
    • Think images first, then slides
    • Eliminate Visual Vomit
    • Create a memorable leave-behind; don’t print your PowerPoint slides


If you apply the principles in Win More Work to your proposals, you will have no choice but to WIN MORE WORK.

Here you will find links to how to quickly find the book or to sign up for an alert about the book’s upcoming release on Amazon.com.


Jim Rogers, Unbridled Revenue Inc.

Why do engineers hate movies?

Can someone please explain to me why engineers don’t go to the movies? Or, the picture show, as my grandmother might have called them. Maybe I’m drawing a false conclusion from a repeated, sometimes heated, discussion I keep having with my clients in information technology, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering. The conversation goes like this:

Me: “The presentation seems very data-packed, long, uninspiring, and unlikely to get the audience to do what you need them to do, which is to get behind this project. Instead of beating them over the head with a 30-slide PowerPoint deck, let’s start out with some stories that illustrate how the paying customer will benefit from your project.”

Client: “Stories? Jim, these are engineers we’re talking about. They need to see lots of detail–Gantt charts, data, schematics. They don’t have patience for stories. They have big left brains!”

Me: “I understand that we’ll need to support our proposal with data, but they cannot read the charts–the font is 7 point Arial Narrow. Let’s get their buy-in with the big idea–the benefit to the customer and how that will increase sales. After they’ve had a chance to hear the story, we can then hand out the spreadsheets, schematics, and Gantt charts for them to look at in more detail and as proof that you have done your homework.”

Client: “But Jim, these are engineers, you don’t understand how they think, even though you’ve worked with engineers for over 25 years [Author’s note: okay, I added that bit in italics–I’ve spent my entire career working with engineers of all sorts.] They don’t want stories, they want graphics and data!

After having many of these conversations over the years as I nudge my clients toward more powerful use of PowerPoint, I must finally concede that I am wrong and that engineers, indeed, only respond to data. Which leads me to conclude that engineers do not like movies, books, or television.

So if you are an engineer or know one, do you agree that engineers have Vulcan-like minds that reject stories and the emotions they evoke?

If it is true, then I guess everything that I’ve learned about persuasion is wrong. Yet going back to my Communications studies in college, the books I’ve read about leadership and marketing, and throughout my 26 years in consulting, I’ve read research and observed that people universally respond to stories. They don’t always respond the way you want them to, but if a story is well-crafted and authentic, they respond to and remember the story, not the spreadsheet.

My real belief on this disagreement is that folks presume that deductive reasoners, like engineers often are, like to be presented with facts that then lead to a conclusion, so presenters believe they must present the facts first. That does not have to be the case. It is often more compelling to open with a story to get attention and engage the audience or reader, then present the supporting specifics, then circle back to the conclusion that you drew from the data.

Remember, the audience came to hear what you expect them to believe or do….not primarily to listen to data. When you need to win people over–even engineers–tell stories to make your point!

Four Tips to Shorten Prep Time for Your Presentation

At a workshop I delivered titled “Power Presentations: How to Sell Your Ideas and Grow Your Influence,” an interesting question came up: How can I cut down the amount of time to prepare for my presentations?

Efficiency is especially important when you must speak on short notice or when you are preparing a sales presentation. Sales presentations and proposals cost money, especially if they involve otherwise billable resources. Cutting proposal costs will increase your margins or allow you to pass savings onto your customers, which will make you more competitive.

Here are four P’s to help you save presentation prep time:

1. Plan

Tired advice, right? The reason you hear it so often is because of its universal truth. Let me be more specific. Plan one purpose for your presentation. Regardless of the presentation’s length, the purpose should answer the question “What do I want the audience to do or think as a result of this talk?” If your presentation has more than one purpose, then you are beginning with a lack of clarity that will waste time at every step in the process, including the following:

  • time collecting source material
  • time drafting content and preparing visuals
  • time editing and proofreading
  • time learning and rehearsing.

2. Print

By hand, that is. Close your laptop and use paper and a pencil to outline your presentation. Research shows that the physical act of writing helps with clarity and creativity. This technique will help you save time on both the written content and the visuals. I use the backs of paper in my recycling bin. Use Post-its, index cards, or a white board.

3. Punt

That is, give the ball back. Spend less time than allotted or make the presentation interactive, or both. If you’ve been given 30 minutes and can make your point in 20, do it in 20 and sit down—or take questions for 10 minutes. I coach proposal presentation teams to talk for about 30 minutes in a one-hour pitch, leaving half the time for interaction along the way and Q&A near the end.

4. Prune

Prepare fewer slides. Sketching on paper first (see #2 above) will help you pick the best spots for visuals. If you’re using an existing presentation, see my article A Technique to Streamline Your Slides. Also, eliminate or limit the use of animation. If animation doesn’t reinforce or illustrate your point, don’t go there. Take a look below at one comedian’s take on PowerPoint abuse–Don McMillan: Life After Death by PowerPoint.

Your time is valuable and scarce. Plan, print, punt, and prune in order to reclaim hours for other work and to lower costs related to preparing presentations. Oh, and you’ll be more likely to sell your idea, close the sale, or delight your audience.