Note:This is a guest post by Loren Blinde of Writing Power.
The proposal format is one of the most formidable tools in the writer’s toolbox. Although normally relegated to the professional/business realm, the proposal is also useful in many academic and personal writing situations.
Its variability aside, the proposal’s real magic is that its effectiveness is not limited to written communication. With a little ingenuity, you can unlock the proposal format’s power and use it to accelerate your progress toward dreams and goals. Master the logic of the proposal, and you’ll get more out of your personal and professional interactions.
What is a proposal? At its most basic level, a proposal is an offer. You are offering something of value to a person or group in exchange for something you value, such as money or time.
Although specific proposal requirements can vary, they generally follow a simple structure. Let’s consider each part of the proposal structure separately and analyze how we can apply a proposal-style approach to getting more out of life.
A strong proposal’s introduction doesn’t mince words. Rather, the introduction clearly and concisely states what you propose to do.
For example, if an employee writes a proposal designed to negotiate a remote working agreement with his or her employer, the introduction should state that aim.
Living Proposal Style – Be Direct
The lesson from the Introduction – be direct – is simple to state but difficult to do. Yet think about how much of our communication could be streamlined if we all worked to be more clear and concise. It would change modern life dramatically. For proof, try the following for one week:
- State your precise reason for writing in each email’s subject line. The key here is “precise.” For example, instead of sending an email labeled “Party?” in the subject line, replace it with, “Invitation to Loren’s Housewarming Party on May 3rd.”
- State an opinion or a preference each time someone asks for one. For example, when someone asks you what you want to do today, don’t respond with, “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” Instead, offer a suggestion. You’ll be amazed at how much time this saves. (For an entertaining primer on this technique, see Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-hour Work Week.)
2. Description of the Problem.
Before you can convince the reader to accept your proposed solution, he or she has to be convinced that there is a problem that needs to be solved. The problem section should vividly describe an undesirable condition; further, the problem section should highlight reasons why the reader should care about this problem.
Returning to our remote work proposal, the employer may not understand why the employee needs to work from home. To make the employer understand, the employee would explain the problems he or she has faced while working in the office: commuting stress, commuting cost, office distractions. But to make the employer take a serious interest in this proposal, the employee should also explain that these factors are decreasing his or her productivity and motivation. Considered from this angle, keeping the employee working in the office is actually costing the employer money.
Living Proposal Style – Adapt your Behavior to Suit the Situation
People can be stubborn creatures, intent on proving their perspective’s validity at the expense of another’s. Unfortunately, people also don’t like to be proven wrong. This means that the more rigidly one person defends his or her position, the more the other person is going to dig his or her heels in. Often, taking a less rigid tack would be much more effective. When it comes down to everyday interactions like these, would you rather be right or happy?
After reading the problem section, the reader should be concerned about the problem you have described and motivated to do something about it. In the solution section, you describe the solution you have proposed in detail. A strong solution section will assure the reader that the solution will fix the problem. Moreover, the writer should provide details to give the reader confidence in the solution’s efficacy.
Continuing the above example, the employee should focus on how working at home will increase the employee’s motivation and productivity in this section. The employee should also provide some specifics to increase the employer’s confidence that the solution will work. The employee should not highlight how much more convenient or desirable it would be to work in his or her pajamas, even though that may be a significant benefit from the employee’s perspective.
Living Proposal Style – Step Into Someone Else’s Shoes
Writers in particular often struggle to communicate because they fail to step into their readers’ shoes. They don’t consider whether the piece meets the readers’ needs, focusing instead on saying what they want to say. Writers don’t always think about what would make it easier for readers to understand the message, and their writing suffers as a result.
There’s a simple, yet powerful, psychological reason that considering another person’s perspective works so well. People love to win. It doesn’t matter whether they’re winning an argument or a carnival prize. It just feels good.
When you highlight a plan’s benefits for others rather than yourself, it demonstrates compassion. A compassionate gesture, in turn, builds goodwill. And if a person feels goodwill toward you, they’re more likely to agree to your suggestion. And if they agree to your suggestion – that’s right – you win.
4. Plan of Action.
This section flows naturally from your solution. Your reader has many questions about how you will implement the solution, and you must convince the reader that you have the knowledge, skills, and resources to turn the solution from a good idea into reality. For example, the employee might explain how he or she would attend meetings, complete projects, and meet with clients from home.
Living Proposal Style — Concreteness Inspires Confidence
What prevents people from making changes in their lives or environments when they know that their lives would be better if they made the change? A common problem is that their desires are too abstract. The sentence, “I wish I could get organized” They are much more likely to make changes if they have specific, actionable steps to complete. This is one reason that many of us (myself included) never seem to tire of reading organizing and decluttering tips.
A concrete plan not only tells what steps need to be taken, but it also provides a clear vision of the result. It’s the vision that empowers change.
Worry over how much it will cost to put the proposal into action is the major obstacle for most proposals. Like the other sections, this section needs to have specifics. Specific numbers give the reader needed information and help to convince the reader that your proposal is well researched.
But the crux of this section is rhetorical, not economic. Whatever the specific costs are, the cost section should aim to convince the reader that the proposal’s benefits are well worth the implementation cost.
Living Proposal Style – Consider Both Absolute and Relative Costs
When considering an expenditure of any kind, it’s easy to focus on the price tag alone. But this is only half of the information: you must also consider whether its cost is reasonable given its value to you. I am not suggesting that you use the concept of relative cost to rationalize unneeded expenditures or a wasteful lifestyle. But “frugal” and “cheap” are not the same thing. Being frugal means getting the maximum value, use, and joy from each dollar you spend.
A strong proposal concludes with a stirring call to action. The writer wants to propel the reader out of his or her chair. Passion for the outcome is a proposal writer’s secret weapon.
Living Proposal Style – Passion is Everything
Modern life can wear anyone down. Many of us have forgotten what it is like to have dreams. Too often, we trade the-sky’s-the-limit dreams for five-year plans. If there is one thing to learn from the proposal, it’s that it is never too late to recapture our excitement for life. The time is now. The proposal has concluded; now, get out of that chair.
This is a guest post by Loren Blinde of Writing Power. Loren teaches college English and helps people enrich their lives by improving their writing. Her recent articles include Seek And Destroy Your Writing Style Enemies and Well Dressed Writing: Tips For Effective Page Design. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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