You wrote a proposal that persuasively sells your solution to a client’s problem. Now, you need to make it look great.
Formatting a proposal can be an intimidating process. There is a range of aesthetics, design tools, and printing options. We created this article based on a common question we receive in our online proposal writing course. Clients often ask: 'What is the best way to format my proposal?'.
We will answer this question by getting you to see your proposal as a client would. Then, we’ll outline basic formatting techniques that can be used thoughtfully and strategically to strengthen your proposal.
How a Proposal is Read by a Client
In order to understand how to format a successful proposal, we need to understand how the client reads one.
It’s almost guaranteed that the initial review of the document will be a speed read. The client will be looking to quickly understand the proposed solution, budget, and other key details. At some point in its consideration, it will hopefully be read thoroughly. But to make it to that stage, the document needs to support skimming.
Your preparation process should have identified the key concerns or decision points, which are formatted to be easily found. You may also be familiar with the style they find most useful. These considerations allow you to format with the reader in mind.
Business Proposal Title Page
The title page is flexible in its formatting. It can be any design, so long as it is professional, legible, and appropriate to the industry.
A proposal title, though, is often a missed opportunity. These documents are often called: “Proposal for XYZ Company.” Not only is this boring, but it also does nothing to highlight the benefit offered to the client.
Your title page should immediately sell your proposal. Read the following title examples and see if it makes you want to read more of the document:
Title: Customer Service Review
Subtitle: Reduce Response Time and Customer Satisfaction Strategies
Title: Technical Report Writing Training
Subtitle: Convey Complex Information to Technical and Non-Technical Audiences
Title: Point of Service Software Upgrade
Subtitle: Ease Client Scheduling Across Four Regions
Table of Contents and Headings
Skimming a document is much easier with a table of contents. The table consists of each heading and subheading and the associated page number.
Each distinct topic within your proposal should have its own section with headings and subheadings. A wall of text is cluttered and overwhelming to the reader. Breaking out the text into smaller paragraphs and sections makes the document more visually digestible.
These section titles also offer a big opportunity. The wording of each heading and subheading doesn’t need to be simply descriptive. They can be persuasive and compound the overall impact of the document.
White space is your friend. It gives the document a modern, accessible appearance.
This effect can be achieved in many ways. Add (more) space between paragraphs and sections. Increase margins. Break large paragraphs into smaller ones.
Lists and Tables
Important or bulky information can be presented more clearly using lists or tables. These forms naturally draw the eye of the reader. Their separation from paragraphs adds importance to that information.
Wedding planner services on the wedding day include staff coordination, decoration organization, vendor confirmation, venue consultation, schedule logistics, and troubleshooting.
Wedding planner services on the wedding day include:
The list presents the same information in a format that is easier to read, remember, and reference.
Always verify if the client has any formatting specifications.
Some RFPs must be submitted with proposal sections directly answering to RFP sections. Clients may have document length or font instructions. Other clients have no directions and prefer creativity in the document.
No matter the directions, they must be followed exactly. The client has provided them for a reason. To incorporate all their desires ensures your document can properly fall into their internal review process. Importantly, it also shows your attention to detail.
There is flexibility within the proposal aesthetic, so long as it meets certain qualities.
The proposal should feel complete. The overall design of the document is appealing and encourages the audience to open and read more. Images and graphics are inserted where they enhance the bid (and never distract the reader).
Many companies also strive for consistency, so that clients can recognize their work. A style guide is highly valuable in this case. The guide is developed based on best practices and preferences within the company. It can define any aspect from font selection to word choice. Following a style guide produces documents with a certain standard and uniformity. If there is a marketing department in your company, coordinate with their graphics team to ensure you are using the brand graphics correctly.
Another handy tool for standardization is a template. Whether an internal or online version, these prepared documents can save time for the writer. In templates, many of the formatting decisions have already been made.
Templates should be used with caution. Each proposal must be crafted to meet the client’s needs. If the existing template does not suit the current client, the proposal needs to be modified or entirely restarted.
In our ultimate guide to writing a proposal, we discuss when and how to use graphics. Graphics can either hurt or aid in your presentation of content. As a general rule, you want to keep them simple and easy to understand. They should not be flashy or distracting. If you have a graphic designer at your company, you can ask them for assistance.
Ensure that the graphics are large enough to read
Use your company colors when possible
Ask yourself if each graphic adds or distracts from the message
Evaluate what message readers will get who flip through the proposal only looking at the graphics briefly.
Use whitespace liberally
Use a simple and easy to read typeface
Use hierarchy to order your content
We have put together a list of proposal templates that have been professionally formatted. These examples proposals span multiple industries and were created by proposal software companies. You can view the documents and our critiques of each in our article 10 Best Proposal Examples.
Online versus Offline Submission
The submission type must be factored into formatting. Online and offline proposals present their own benefits and challenges. What looks sleek online may look terrible in hard copy, and vice versa.
No matter the format, submit the highest quality version possible to the client.
Always review your proposal and its formatting in the exact way your client will receive it. A pro tip is to ensure that electronic submissions can still be easily and properly printed. There are still many decision-makers who prefer a paper copy.
In either case, an introductory letter or email is valuable. This text can be added to the email or as a printed page that lies on top of the hard copy. The letter provides an introduction to the proposal and the benefit to the client. It can also provide an opportunity to invite the next action from the proposal, such as a review meeting.
A business proposal needs to look great. It also needs to be accessible and client-ready. Thoughtful formatting ensures that the persuasive texts actually gets read.
Win more business with strong proposal writing skills.
Our Proposal Writing Course includes instructor feedback & coaching to review any proposal you write.
Mary Cullen Originally published May 23, 2020, updated December 22, 2023
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.