Research shows that people can be persuaded to act in universal, predictable ways. This is important knowledge for proposal developers, whose work is largely about persuading customers. Ethical application of persuasive science can help shift customer decisions in an organization’s favor.


The purpose of a proposal is both to inform and persuade. When making contract decisions, decisionmakers rarely apply cold, hard logic and exclude all other considerations. Many factors influence decisionmaking, including the content of a presentation, the relevancy of a product, and even a proposal’s font. When it comes to writing and submitting a winning proposal, proposal developers must successfully apply the principles of influence.

These principles are more than theoretical. Research scientists have identified several key elements of persuasion that have useful applications in the business world.

Closely related to the topic of persuasion is that of persuasive writing. While persuasive writing is especially important in a written proposal, principles of persuasion apply throughout the sales and business development process.

Best Practices

1. Understand how central and peripheral processing affect decisionmaking.

Scientists who study decisionmaking were once puzzled by an apparent contradiction: while better arguments are sometimes more persuasive, at other times, they backfire. Weaker proposals occasionally win over stronger ones. Why?

According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model, published in 1986, people tend to use one of two processes when making decisions. One, called central processing, is based on logic and sound arguments. This is the route that makes logical, rational sense. In this model, the decisionmaker thinks through arguments carefully and evaluates all available evidence. Experts are more likely than novices to use central processing during high-stakes decisions.

Peripheral processing, however, is the key to understanding why logically weaker arguments sometimes win. Peripheral processing uses mental shortcuts and cues to quickly process and act on information. From a purely logical viewpoint, peripheral processing may seem inconsiderate or improper. However, scientists have demonstrated that in general, peripheral processing is much more common than central processing.

In the case of proposals, the widespread practice of immediately rejecting those that do not carefully follow instructions is an example of peripheral processing. For the decisionmaker, the lack of care serves as a quick cue to undesirability. This shortcut may be reliable in many cases, but may also lead to rejection of high-quality proposals.

Proposal readers use both central and peripheral processing in their decisionmaking processes. This is one reason proposal developers must understand their readers. If the proposal is going to be evaluated by experts, high-quality arguments will win.

But a proposal will likely be evaluated during some part of the process by one or more non-experts. For these decisionmakers, peripheral processing will play a major role. Therefore, it is important for proposal writers to be aware of how peripheral processing occurs. Keep this in mind especially when writing an executive summary. Executive summaries are often read by decisionmakers assessing a proposal at a high level. Write executive summaries that support peripheral processing of information. Above all, consider the customer’s needs and tailor proposal language accordingly.

2. Use the six Weapons of Influence to structure your argument effectively.

In Influence: Science and Practice, Robert Cialdini reviews experiments that fall into six categories of persuasion. He calls these categories the Weapons of Influence. They are:

  1. Reciprocity is captured with the old phrase, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Subtly reminding readers of something valuable they’ve received from a contractor can trigger a reciprocity reaction. For example, if a firm made concessions in a prior proposal, reminding the reader of these can trigger a feeling of indebtedness.
  2. Consistency is a mental shortcut that encourages deciding in the same way as before. To the frustration of proposal developers, consistency exerts a strong pull on many decisionmakers and votes often go to incumbents. Writers who are bidding as the incumbent should keep this principle in mind as they write.When trying to break in with a new lead, writers can highlight some key characteristic that the client identifies with. For example, “Selecting our firm, with its strong environmental track record, is consistent with your firm’s demonstrated dedication to sound environmental practices.”
  3. Social proof is at play when decisionmakers follow the lead of their colleagues or competitors. Social proof assumes that “If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” Proposers can establish social proof by describing past successes with similar or noteworthy clients.
  4. Liking is often a salesperson’s key strength. Science backs this up—people are more easily influenced by those they like. Sales and marketing techniques can help leverage this principle. By writing in a personal, relatable voice, proposal writers can further make themselves “likable” to potential clients.Another way to build liking is to reference the client’s name frequently. Some proposal writers even use the client’s logo and branding within the proposal.
  5. Authority often comes into play when a non-expert is forced to decide about a complex issue. One reason many boards use consultants is because board members are aware of their status as non-experts. They rely on those with authority to recommend the most suitable decision.Proposers can demonstrate authority by describing the credentials of team members, referencing awards and industry accolades, or providing testimonials from knowledgeable past clients.
  6. Scarcity can be a strong emotional driver of decisionmaking. When a product or service is in short supply, people may become more likely to act. Scarcity underlies limited-time-only offers. However, people have strong negative reactions to false calls of scarcity. Furthermore, emphasizing scarcity should not be confused with an arrogant or overconfident “take it or leave it” message.

If a product has a limited distribution or limited availability, describing this can be an authentic tool of influence.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Overuse of persuasive techniques

Writers shouldn’t load proposals with all of the tools of influence they can find. In fact, if a customer thinks it is being manipulated or that the claims are dishonest, these tools can backfire. Evaluators look for authenticity. If they “smell a rat,” other judgments or assumptions will come into play that will undermine the Proposal Writer’s attempts to persuade.

What is the right amount of persuasion to use? A great first step is to be honest. Use elements that exist naturally in the situation. Companies should only be bidding on projects that are good fits for their capabilities. For this reason, they should be able to emphasize the qualities that they truly possess. For example, if a company really is the leading authority in its field, pointing that out will be honest and authentic—and persuasive to readers.


  • People make decisions using either central processing or peripheral processing. Decisions made by central processing consider all available evidence before making a reasoned judgment. Decisions made by peripheral processing use mental shortcuts to quickly act on information.
  • Social psychologist Robert Cialdini identified six Weapons of Influence that can be used to persuade. They are reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.
  • Mr. Cialdini’s principles are thought to be nearly universal. Proposal writers can use them to make proposals more persuasive.
  • Writers should never misuse principles of influence. The principles should be used to highlight true benefits, never to deceive.

Terms to Know