How to write a proposal for business: 7 things freelancers should do differently [updated 2021]

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Knowing how to write a proposal for business is one of the many skills service based freelancers (and any business owner) can benefit from learning. But like a lot of skills in the gig economy, there is little to no instruction. It often feels like there’s even less time to acquire these essential skills.

Becoming accomplished in how to write a proposal for business is then left gathering dust on an ever-growing content creation to do list, in the hope that one day it somehow, magically, is checked off as ‘done’.

In my previous life as a corporate drone, I learned a lot about how to write a proposal for business, mainly because many of my fellow drones avoided the task like it was a corporate plague.

And who could blame them? Ridiculous deadlines, finicky clients, and tyrannical bid managers. And don’t even mention the win:lose ratio.

All in all, proposal writing back in that environment definitely wasn’t for the faint-hearted. However, it was and remains a necessary part of the professional services world. And it’s part of a freelancer’s life too.

Depending on the complexity of our work, our proposals may not involve much content, but it’s important to understand that learning how to write a proposal for business is a valuable part of learning how to communicate with our ideal audience. It’s another avenue by which we can demonstrate we ‘get’ them, that we understand their needs, and that we care enough to communicate in ways that make sense to them.

And this is key. As a professional proposal writer, I learned things about communication and content that have stuck with me, and have in fact, formed the basis of how I approach my work now.

With that in mind, here are my suggestions for how to write a proposal in business if you’re a freelancer.

#1 That’s enough about me. What do you think of me?

There were times when working on large tenders when I wondered if I was hanging out with gorillas in the mist, such was the volume of “it’s all about me”.

I referred to it previously, but remember Bette Midler in Beaches? That’s enough about me. What do you think of me?

Learning how to write a proposal in business means learning to communicate in the language and values of your client. It also means your client shouldn’t have to wade through a proposal to reach the real guts of what’s on offer.

We definitely want to be sharing what we do well. It’s just that there’s a certain way of doing it. Testimonials, client feedback, and even direct contact details can be far more impactful than generic marketing content that doesn’t say much at all.  Make sure these relevant for your client because this will be just another way to show you’ve cared enough to communicate in a way that makes sense to them.

A tip for business owners

When you’re looking to engage a freelancer, ask for client references and evidence of prior work. A freelancer who is confident in what they do will be happy to provide these as a demonstration of how they work and the value they provide. This is the kind of due diligence that can prevent heartache, disappointment, and rework down the track, so it’s well worth the effort to ask upfront.

#2 Make inspiration part of how to write a proposal for business

Look, I know there’s a lot of solo-freelancer-entrepreneur types out there who may speak a different language, but sincerity and inspiration should find their way into your proposal somewhere.

A lack of inspiration tells the reader (your prospective client no less!) that you don’t really care enough: to give your very best; to take the time to ‘get them’; to understand what they need.

I had one boss in my corporate career who shared the analogy that business development is like dating, so proposals are a kind of professional love note.

As a freelancer, you really want to show you care by demonstrating you’ve truly heard and understood your client’s issues. You want to put your smartest solutions forward in a way that a client feels excited about what you have to offer and is prepared to pay for it.

A tip for business owners

When you receive a proposal from a freelancer, consider whether they have demonstrated an understanding of your challenges. Ask yourself whether they’ve considered your needs from your perspective. Think about whether you really understand what they’re offering, and if you don’t, ask for it to be explained to you.

#3 Avoid repeating yourself, yourself, yourself

Another corporate boss had a name for those times when high volumes of proposals had to go out the door.

He imaginatively called it the ‘sausage machine’. Why? Because that’s exactly what it was. The bid team pumped out proposals, regurgitating the same ol’, same ol’ information, with little to no thought about what would be most appealing or interesting to the reader (aka the client).

A process driven approach to preparing proposals is a valid concept. Using templates and standard content can reduce the time and effort required for preparing a quality proposal. But – and it’s a big but – keep in mind the process should also allow for personalisation, because communication should be a personal experience, after all.

You can customise your proposal by:

  • Following up with the client before your complete the proposal to ask any clarifying questions (even if you’ve already spoken with them)
  • Outlining the client’s specific needs as a way to show you understand them
  • Refer to industry-specific information that is relevant for the client
  • Identify how your process or approach will help address their specific challenges or issues
  • Provide examples of projects and explain why they are relevant for them.

Adjusting your standard proposal this way can make the difference between something that hits the mark and gets you hired.

You might be wondering, Well, how does this work if I only offer packages? I hear you. Having standard packages is an excellent idea as it provides clarity for you and the client, but sometimes circumstances mean we need to adjust our approach. This can be addressed by including some text in your proposal that makes it clear the client can come back and have the package tailored to them specifically. Here’s a line I often use:

Whenever I prepare a proposal, I consider it as a work in progress and I’d like you to do the same.  If you have any questions about what I’ve prepared here, please ask me. I am keen to answer these because it means you understand what’s involved in preparation of your content.  More importantly, you will feel comfortable and confident with the decision you make in respect of who writes your content; whether it’s you, me or someone else.

I do this because I want people to know that our relationship is based on transparent communication that goes two ways, and that they should feel comfortable coming back to me with any questions.

A tip for business owners

When you receive a proposal from a freelancer, consider whether it has really addressed your specific needs. If it’s simply a quote with figures, does it really address all your questions or concerns. If you feel it doesn’t, write down your questions and be sure these are answered so you feel confident about going forward together. Most of us want to establish and maintain long term working relationships, so working from a shared understanding is the ideal place to start.

#4 Avoid over committing: How to write a proposal for business [not]

Over committing is the freelancer equivalent of a used car salesperson who promises the earth, but delivers a falling star.

This is most damaging when your reader is technically astute and knows that your budget, schedule or approach have no way of being achieved without heavenly intervention. Not only does this detract from your professional credibility, it diminishes trust; a fundamental for any business relationship.

Working as a freelancer, it’s so very easy to over commit because there’s no guarantee the next gig will appear just when you need it. For many freelancers, there’s a tendency to take on too much work and then not deliver.

My work around for this has been to state clearly when I could start the project and timeframes for deliverables, allowing enough for potential delays. And during the project, if I have been unable to meet a pre-agreed timeframe, I communicate directly to the client. A novel concept, I know, but I’ve found that almost all clients are understanding. They’re human after all. Timely, clear, and honest communication can help avoid a world of pain.

A tip for business owners

Before a project starts (like at the time you’re assessing the proposal), be sure you understand how and when communication will occur during the project. Consider whether it suits you. Are you a texter, not a talker? Would you prefer voice messages, rather than long emails? Do understand when you’ll be updated by your freelancer? These are all small details, but as I’ve learned, the little things really do count and make a difference to working with a freelancer.

#5 Assume your client knows nothing [but be nice about it]

In his book How Clients Choose, author David Maister says that your client will assume you have a level of technical capability and that their purchase decision will be based on how they feel about you.

The fact that a client has a need for the services of an external contractor means they are exposing themselves and their business, and in doing so, revealing parts of the organisation that are not usually market facing. It can be confronting to a client if you bombard them with the technical majesty of your solution.

Maister suggests that technical professionals get too focused on technical matters and overlook what he calls ‘the essential relationship nature of professional transactions’. He goes on to say that technical skills are critical, ‘but only a necessary condition for success, not a sufficient one’.

What this means is it is safe to assume your client knows very little about your area of expertise and that it’s okay to explain what you know in language that makes sense to them. Fortunately this can be done without making the client feel stupid. How good is that?

Note to self: Save your technical arrogance for Facebook, school pick up, or coffee with friends. Understanding and appreciation is what your client needs.

As a freelance content creator, I believe I have a responsibility to educate my clients and take them on a journey so that during our time working together, they gain understanding and awareness. I want them to be better off for us having worked together. And this means communicating with care.

A tip for business owners

If the manner and language of a freelancer leaves you feeling like a dummy, they’re probably not the right person to be working with. Look for qualities like patience, intelligent communication, and a willingness to take enough time to explain things so you feel comfortable and confident about moving forward together.

#6 How to write a proposal for business [Forget poor spelling, grammar + techie solutions]

In the rush to meet deadlines, it’s very easy to leave next to no time for revision and refinement, but keep in mind that while presentation is not everything, it goes a very long way to creating a perception that you’re professional and mean business.

Simple errors, like poor spelling and grammar can be avoided with a careful review before hitting ‘send’. Online tools make this entirely possible if you’re not a confident writer.

For those projects where we are up levelling, I’ve always found it wise to seek feedback from an independent third party who identify opportunities for improvements. I think of this person as the ‘red liner’, that is, the person who takes a metaphorical (or real) red pen and runs a red line through what needs to go.  Although the suggestions might be a bit hard to take at times (after all, you’ve put forward your best effort), it will almost always result in a better proposal. Approaching your proposals like this is just another way to show you care.

A tip for business owners

When you receive a proposal, consider what’s important to you. Are you willing to overlook the finer details if you have a sense that someone is a good fit? Or would you prefer that the freelancer you’re about to engage was a complete stickler? Knowing where you stand on these finer points will help you determine whether the proposal in front of you can meet your needs.

#7 Forget the weasel words

Yet another valuable learning from corporate life was that weasel words are best left to weasels.

Some of my less aware corporate colleagues would joke about their frequent use of weasel words, however, as someone who will eschew small talk for directness, I couldn’t ever get my head around the value of fluffing out a proposal with stuff that just didn’t need to be there.

Empty words don’t tell your story; they lack dept and authenticity and convey nothing of who you are to your ideal audience. Best to leave them out and focus on what you really want to say and he most meaningful way to say that.

A tip for business owners

When you receive a proposal, respect the freelancer enough to take enough time and pay enough focused attention to understand what’s being presented to you. That way, you’ll be in a position to gauge the freelancer’s level of sincerity and the appropriateness of the solution.

A final word on how to write a proposal for business

There is a buyer and seller involved in every proposal that’s issued, and regardless of which role we’re in, there is a responsibility to ensure our communication through the proposal process is clear and well understood. Approaching proposals this way sets the foundation for a balanced, enduring, and prosperous relationship for all involved.

So what about you? If you’re a buyer, are there things in a proposal that turn you off? If you’re a freelancer, what do you think are must haves for every submission you make? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Macushla Collins is a content creator, content coach, and book coach. She is an enthusiastic advocate for communicating and creating content consciously in business. Drawing from her experience as a freelancer, she offers freelancers, business owners, and non-writers coaching programs, courses, and digital products that help to evolve their business content and communication. You can connect with Macushla here