This is a really long post. But before you TL;DR it, give it a quick skim. The first half is hand-waving stuff about answering ‘Why?’ The second half is specific tips on doing proposals that build imputed value.
Writing a great proposal is hard. The question you’re trying to answer is “Why should I hire you?” But we spend a lot of time ducking and dodging around that question, instead. Typically, our proposals translate to ‘because I said so!’. Which really doesn’t work. So, I gave this presentation at Distilled’s most excellent SearchLove conference.
I use the learning from a fantastic book called Starting With Why, by Simon Sinek. I cite it a few more times. You should just go read it now.
Kids: Nature’s way of teaching us to write great proposals
My son turned 12 in March. He’s a great kid, but he’s definitely hitting the “Let’s see what makes dad produce that ‘grrrnnpphhhh’ sound he makes when someone cuts him off on the freeway” phase of his life.
Harrison’s growing realization that I’m a festering dolt has led him to use one word a lot, in a tone that indicates his complete, biologically-inspired scorn at how stupid I’ve become:
Me: Harrison, stop playing video games.
Me: Because you need exercise.
Me: Because otherwise you’ll turn into a hairless tribble.
Harrison: That’s dumb. Really, why?
Me: Because otherwise (sound of plug pulled from video game)
To be fair, I’ve only hit the plug-pulling stage once or twice. Like I said: He’s a good kid. Usually I take a bouncy detour straight to “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” which in my mind is actually “BECAUSE I F–
–-G SAID SO!”
I tend to exaggerate (cough) so I though I should test just how bad the ‘why’ epidemic is in the Lurie household: I did a quick experiment this week. I told Harrison I’d pay him $5 if he could go an entire day without asking me ‘why?’ in response to a request. He made it 15 minutes.
With kids, we can occasionally get away with “because I said so”. Now and then, though, we have to do a really good job of answering ‘why’. Sometimes, “Because you’ll feel a lot better the rest of the day” works better than unplugging the video game
With potential clients or bosses, we can never, ever use Because I Said So. But we try it all the time.
I had this lesson pounded into me over 12 years of parenting and 17 years of proposal writing. You can take a shortcut: Read the rest of this post.
Stop playing it safe
Whether a potential client asks this question or not, when you write a proposal, you’re usually answering it:
If you’re working with an internal client at a big company, the question is something more like “Why should I do what you ask?” But the effective question is the same: “Why?”
They’re asking ‘why?’ and your first impulse is to write something like:
Luckily your brain intervenes and stops you. It says: I won’t be standing there when they read it. That’s true. So smart-assery probably isn’t a good idea. Unfortunately, your brain keeps going, and you think I’d better avoid anything that could be misinterpreted, and make sure I list every possible option.
So, you deliver a laundry list like this:
You answer with a babble of ‘how’, trying to bury the reader with information.
Sometimes, you answer with a weasel of ‘what’ instead: Something like “We’ll help you improveROI.” Either one lumps you in with five other yawn-inspiring proposals. The client responds by skimming the first page or two, then skipping to bid.
Both of these answers equate to a shrug and “Because I said so.” You failed to answer the reader’s question, and guaranteed that she’ll remember you only for your estimate.
If you want to really learn the thinking behind ‘why’ versus ‘how/what’, then read a awesome book called Starting With Why, by Simon Sinek. Sinek dives deep into the subject—you’ll learn a lot of great stuff about successful leadership. Read it.
Because I Said So doesn’t create relationships
I’ve never had a great client relationship start with a client telling me “You had the longest list of services” or “You promised us the highest ROI” or (god forbid) “You were the cheapest.” Those are what and how issues.
I have had lots of great relationships start with “We really enjoyed talking to you!” or “We just felt like you get it.” That kind of connection happens when you answer Why.
Great, Ian. How do I answer ‘why’?
First, you need to understand why you do what you do. I find the easiest way to figure that out is to fill in the blank in this statement: “I run my business because I believe ______________.”
That’s should be the easy part (if it’s not, definitely read Sinek’s book). You have to explain that belief in the context of your potential client’s own beliefs. That’s a lot harder. My short cut is to fill in the blank in this statement:
If you ____ then we’re the agency for you.
Take my favorite TV show. If you asked the Eleventh Doctor for his Why, it’d be something like this:
Translate that to the viewer’s point of view, and he’d say something like:
I know: That’s fake. What about a real example? Here’s Portent’s Why:
We are in business because we believe that great marketing can save the world by connecting people to what matters.
And, here’s our proposal-friendly version:
If you think what you do matters, and want to work with folks who know that means it all matters, then we’re your agency.
Why is our value. It’s what we can bring to our clients. Not SEO. Not PPC. Not rankings or links or even ROI. Lots of folks can bring that. And, if the clients are nodding up and down when we talk about it, then we know we’ll work well together.
We can write this in our proposal, and/or say it when we meet with the potential client. But the real trick is making your proposal ooze this from every pore. It must be imputed.
The How must parallel the Why: Imputed value
Steve jobs believed in imputed value: The idea that customers should see, feel and know the Why not just because you say it, but also because everything about the product they have in their hands, or the ad they just saw, or the store they’re in is in sync with that ideal. In other words, the How must parallel the Why. Get those in sync and you’ll have a fantastic proposal.
Your Answer must be implicit. If you say “If you want an agency that has an incredible attention to detail, we’re the agency for you” and then send a proposal filled with typos, your Answer is lost. If, on the other hand, you send an impeccable proposal document, then it’s easily imputed.
Building imputed value: Lots of little things
(Full article http://www.portent.com/blog/random/great-proposals.htm )