Lessons from the Web: How to write proposals

From time to time, I like looking for best practices for writing project proposals.  Especially when you’re finally breaking out of a corporate mold, you need to finally establish your offerings and services without the trappings of a large corporation — which is typically easier because there are existing templates, formats and corporate accomplishments that automatically add credibility through the sheer name of the company.

Online, you can find a gajillion cooking, crafting and music-playing how-to’s.  But what about document-writing?  Well, that’s what I needed to find.

So, what websites gave interesting advice about proposal writing?

1. A List Apart

Let’s Do It! What Are We Doing?

Like always, A List Apart introduces ideas with style:

Thrilling as it may be, your excitement quickly turns to anxiety as you realize that the next thing they want to know is “how much will it cost?”…

But accurately mapping out the scope of a project could take weeks of focused effort. That’s probably not something you can give away whenever you get a request for a quote. So what do you do?…

So instead of putting together their requested $100,000 proposal, what do I do? I put together a $20,000 one.

Well, it’s the first part of the bigger project, naturally. Depending on the nature of the project, it may require different tasks and deliverables. But we’ll likely include things like meetings, interviews, information architecture recommendations, branding analysis, a copywriting style guide, a content audit, wireframes, and style prototypes/style tiles. Whatever we end up doing, we’ll compile all of the research and conclusions we draw in the specification document, which is the central deliverable we provide at the end of the phase…


You know what’s scary? Handing a big wad of money to a stranger. That’s what a big initial contract is like for a potential client. A smaller introductory research project lets a new client wade in ankle-deep before the big plunge…

The pre-project project lets you assess the relationship in a low-risk environment…

…As this phase is nearing completion, you’ll be able to create a much more accurate budget for phase two. Because your research has generated a well-informed project definition, there will be much less guesswork, and a far greater understanding of the project’s requirements.

Designing Contracts for the XXI Century

it’s also the business card you hate handing out: a folder of legal gibberish with terrible formatting that reminds the client of everything that could possibly go wrong before the work has even started.

…defining what must be done, the deadline, the client’s approval, and the price.

AIGA’s standard agreement for design services uses a nifty solution to make sure all modifications are in writing and that there’s a limit to the number of modifications that can be requested…

For example, imagine you are an illustrator who creates a set of characters for a story. Your client picks the ones they like, and those are the deliverables they buy. Why shouldn’t you keep the rest, and “recycle” them for future projects? If you don’t specify this in the contract, the client will be assigned all the work in connection with the project, including unused sketches.

Same thing if you are delivering code. It’s common to incorporate snippets of code into multiple projects, but just because that code ends up in that project doesn’t mean that client owns it. These are usually called “design tools” in a contract—which means instead of giving something away, you’re simply giving your client permission to continue using the tools…

Standards don’t just come from lawyers or unions. Andy Clarke’s Contract Killer is extremely popular among freelance designers—in fact, a version of his contract is one of the most viewed and downloaded items at my company, Docracy, which provides an open collection of legal documents. This is likely due to Clarke’s strict no-legalese policy. He even dropped the classic impersonal language, transforming it into a natural dialogue with the client: “What both parties agree to do.”

You need to make sure you don’t sign anything you’ll regret, and spotting bad provisions is not a lawyers-only job. Scanning contracts is a necessity sometimes, so always look closely at the following parts:

  • Parties, particularly when companies are involved: Make sure the people you’re dealing with have the power to bind their companies.
  • IP provisions: Who owns copyright and when, and what the licensing limitations are.
  • Your representation and warranties—the fewer, the better: underpromise and overdeliver!
  • Termination: What happens if someone wants to get out of the deal early?
  • Dispute resolution: The clause no lawyer ever wants to give up. Watch this one, because you don’t want to let a client drag you to a court a thousand miles away. If you can agree to arbitration or mediation, even better.

The more contracts you read, the better you’ll get at spotting weird provisions. Trust your judgement: If something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t.

2. Docracy and the American Institute of Graphic Arts

Which houses AIGA’s standard agreement for design services.  I want to thank the group that made this site and made this contract.  This is the stuff you actually want to pay for.

Whether you want to give full license or a limited license to your work, there is an easily understandable contract on file.

3.  Stuff And Nonsense, by Andrew Clarke

Clarke’s contract, dubbed The Contract Killer, has been used for years, and is a non-legalese document that he created for himself and his design team, which he has seen to cover every element that his clients seem to be concerned about.

Like I said about AIGA and Docracy, this guy is a hero.

Your killer contract should cover:

  • A simple overview of who is hiring who, what they’re being hired to do, when and for how much
  • What both parties agree to do and what their respective responsibilities are
  • The specifics of the deal and what is or isn’t included in the scope
  • What happens when people change their minds (as they almost always do)
  • A simple overview of liabilities and other legal matters
  • You might even include a few jokes

To help you along, I’ll illustrate those bullet points by pointing both barrels at the contract that I wrote and have been using here at Stiffs & Nonsense for the past five years. My contract has been worth its weight in lead and you’re welcome to take all or any part of it to use for yourself. It’s packing a creative-commons attribution share-a-like license. That means you’re free to re-distribute it, translate it and otherwise re-use it in ways I never considered. In return I only ask you mention my name and link back to this article.

4. This website called Mindshare Consulting.

One Question to Ask Every Client

A good reminder.   And I’m a person who asks questions for a living. So I reeeeeeally appreciate this.

That question is how does the client know what the problem actually is?…

Second, if you and the client base the definition of the problem on shaky assumptions, everything you do going forward will be unreliable. Without a solid foundation, you can’t be sure if the proposed solution will be successful or miss the mark.

Finally, if your solution doesn’t resolve the problem, don’t look for clients to chalk it up to poor diagnosis on their part; they will hold you accountable.

How to Write a Killer Proposal

I needed to calm the cynic in me, after reading that title.  But, the post did share good advice.

It’s less costly to write a letter confirming your services than to prepare a formal document proposing your services. Consultants rarely ask clients to award them the business without a formal proposal, so distinguish yourself and ask whether you can start the work using a letter of confirmation. What do you have to lose?

A confirmation letter differs from a proposal in that it describes what you will do, rather than what you are proposing to do. The confirmation letter describes the project objective, scope, schedule, fees, and results, just like a proposal…

Many proposals begin with a long discussion of the consulting firm, its qualifications, and history. Focus your proposal on the client’s needs first, and then describe your firm’s capabilities. Remember, clients only care about how you’ll address their issues, so show them how you’ll do that…

Give clients a sense of the culture of your firm and your style of working. The traditional, stilted language of many consulting proposals doesn’t help clients answer the all-important question: what will it be like to work with these consultants?

5.  This is more of a question.  Why do many posts about writing consultancy proposals ask writers to keep the opening tone “warm”?