The Anatomy of a Winning Business Proposal

Writing proposals to win business is the lifeblood of just about every organization whether a multi-million dollar company or one-person shop. From healthcare to technology, to construction and the finance and insurance industries, the people who strategize, research, write, edit, budget, and design bids and proposals are, perhaps, the unsung heroes of corporate America.  They drive revenue into their organizations to keep the lights on and the cars in the parking lot.

Why? It’s because they are skilled in what it takes to win, from the right strategy, the right budget, and right team members – to great writing, intelligent design, and strong relationships.  And it’s a process that’s evolved significantly over the past few years. Taking a look at the anatomy of what makes a proposal stand out among the competition will reveal what you should consider before, during and after you respond to an RFP and write your first proposal.  

Like life, proposal writing is both an art and a science combining the perfect blend of left-brain/right-brain thinking. Consider the value in appealing to the emotions of your audience, through creative storytelling and persuasive writing. On the flip side, analytical thinking can help identify and analyze what’s important to the decision-makers reviewing your proposal or comes into play when quantifying your claims with facts.

As we dissect the anatomy of a winning proposal, here are some top-line considerations to keep in mind.

  1. The Brain: Think and act strategically. Determining “to bid, or not to bid” is of utmost importance. Your decision will determine if spending hundreds or thousands of dollars in time and effort is likely to result in a win. Read the proposal carefully and determine if it’s a good fit for you and your company. If you can, ask others to weigh in. Remember that you are in this to win business, so don’t scatter shot bid. Number one, you’ll develop a reputation. Number two, you won’t get into a process of standardizing your proposals. Number three, your proposal will read like you don’t want to win. The bottom line – don’t be afraid to just walk away. If you make the decision to pursue the RFP, you’ll need to continue to work and think strategically as you map out your development process and team.
  2. The Bones: Connect with what the RFP is asking for. I highly recommend developing a compliance matrix. This can be a simple excel document where you can identify the parts that need a response and better understand and track them through a grid. That way nothing falls through the cracks. A common mistake is only responding to the parts you are good at, which can put you at a real disadvantage.
  3. The Brawn: Highlight strong past performance. What have you done in the past will show this customer or client that you’ll be successful at providing them with a product or service that meets their needs. However, be aware that a common mistake is talking about your company and yourself or team in a proposal much more than focusing on what the client is looking for. Focus 98% of your writing on the customer and how your product and service is going to benefit them. If your proposal has more than 2% about you, it’s probably too much. You can zoom to the top 10% if you just focus on what the company needs and how you’re going to provide that.
  4. The Beauty: Pay attention to style. Good writing is important, but it’s not only words that count. Make your graphics as strong as your writing. Don’t underestimate what your proposal looks like and the first impression that it gives. Make sure there’s something pleasing to look at on each page, and more than just white space. Be creative and use artwork to illustrate what you mean and graphs to demonstrate a point visually. The difference between winning and losing a client is often in the details and it’s important to not overlook the impact of graphics and color.  
  5. The Bloodstream: Let the lessons learned flow. Even if you’re a one-person proposal machine, figure out what worked for you on a recent proposal and what didn’t. This will help you identify your sweet spot and settle into a standard proposal process that becomes your thumbprint as you move forward in business development and winning new business. This crucial step will help you determine how much time, money and effort you put it and weigh it against the outcome. I also recommend reaching out to the decision-makers and simply asking what resonated with them or what fell short. All valuable intel before moving on to the next proposal. 


Author’s bio: 

Rick Harris is the Executive Director of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, the worldwide authority for those dedicated to the process of winning business through proposals, bids, tenders, and presentations. To learn more tips and how to position yourself for the win, visit us at, and also check out our book Writing Business Bids & Proposals for Dummies. APMP is charged with promoting the professional growth of its members by advancing the arts, sciences, and technologies of winning business. APMP is based in Washington, DC, has 8,200 members and serves 27 chapters globally.

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