7 Techniques to Turn Your Business Proposal into a Best Seller

Summertime is when a lot of people grab a book, plop down in a lawn or beach chair and blissfully enter a vivid business-proposal-imageworld that some novelist created.

You may think that the way a novelist weaves the web of story is different from the way you write a business proposal, but maybe you should think again.

After all, novelists have to solicit business (convince you to read the whole book), state the problem (present the main story conflict), present a solution (resolve the conflict) and show credibility (create a convincing world). Isn’t that what a proposal does?

Here are 7 tips from novelists that will help you write a best-selling proposal:


Novelists will often write character studies, making lists of attributes for each main character. They include things like what kind of clothing the character wears, how much they eat, what music they listen to and what they love or hate in their relationships. Most of this detail will not make it into the finished novel, but a deep understanding of each character allows the novelist to write the story in a way that has readers empathizing with these fictional people.

So, too, will a successful business proposal show the depth of knowledge you have of the target company, their industry and the challenges they face. Do your homework on the client before sitting down to write the proposal.

A good business proposal focuses fully on client needs and wants. It's not about you.


Have you ever started a novel that focuses on one character, only to find out later that he or she has a bit part in the overall plot? That is a failing on the part of the novelist, who should make it clear right up front who the star of the story is.

The equivalent of this mistake is when a proposal starts with an “About Us” segment that describes your company, the services you offer and the great projects you have completed.

Your company is not the main character in this drama—the client is. Your best-selling business proposal focuses on the client, their problem and how you propose to solve it. Your qualifications come later and are supplemental to the main plot of the proposal.


“Start the piece where the trouble starts.”
      - Adair Lara

Novelists are prodded to go straight to the conflict at the heart of the story. This is referred to as In medias res—Latin for “in the middle of things.” A reader wants to get right to the action with no throat clearing or long set-ups.

Your proposal also should waste no time in getting to the action. Capture your reader’s attention by moving quickly to a statement of the client’s problem, and how you propose to solve it.


Have you ever read a novel where the author rushed through a scene right at the height of the action? Or worse—did he use the “old fade to black” routine? What was your reaction? You probably felt cheated and clapped the book shut.

The same thing will happen if you use fuzzy language or rush the reader of your business proposal through the “How We Will Help You Solve Your Problem” section of the document. This is the "action scene" where you slow down and give the reader a lot of detail. Clearly explain exactly how you will help the client. Do not use over worked terms such as value-added, optimize, best practice, or leverage. Avoid industry jargon or acronyms your potential client might not understand.


“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
      - Mark Twain

Language is the tool in a novel that sets scene, portrays emotion, creates mood and brings the story alive in the reader’s mind.

Successful proposals contain the right language for the client: specific to their industry, free of jargon, and above all, clear. For help with this step, review our Guide to Clarity in Business Writing.


“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
      - Elmore Leonard

You know you’ve done it—jumped ahead in a novel to get to the good parts, skipping long descriptions, redundant characterizations, etc.

Your clients are also good at skimming. They have to be in order to save their time and sanity because so many business documents are long and convoluted.

Take a cue from the writers of page-turning novels and make each word of your proposal crucial. Set a quick pace in your narrative, provide headings for ease of reading and leave plenty of white space.


“Writing can be like folding a banquet-sized tablecloth; you can do it yourself, but it’s a lot easier when you can find somebody to help.”
      - Ted Kooser

Good novels are the result of collaboration. The successful novelist has received both instruction and critique to hone his writing skills. He also takes advantage of the services of a good editor to make sure the novel is ready for publication.

Writing a proposal is often a team effort. Information and data are pulled together from various sources. The proposal goes through several drafts and different people look through the document before it is ready to send off to the client. If you are the sole person writing and reviewing the proposal, be certain to let it sit for 24 hours before you edit it. You're too familiar with the material and format to objectively improve upon it, so let a little time pass so you can view it with fresh eyes.

Review our proposal writing course. This is a practicum course with individual coaching, which guides you through an actual work proposal:

  • Your instructor will review key incremental exercises, guiding you to a perfect final proposal.
  • Learn the planning and writing process required to write a proposal that wins business.
  • Receive coaching on the organization, sequencing, and language of your proposal.
  • And, receive one-on-one live proposal coaching, via WebEx, to ensure all of the proposals you write win business.

 Review Proposal Course Outline

Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

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.

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