Persuasive Writing

Well-written proposals draw on the techniques of persuasive writing. Proposal writers and managers can learn and apply persuasive writing techniques to win business and build partnerships.

Introduction

Best Practices

The tools of argument used and documented thousands of years ago still work, and no proposal writer should be without them. However, we need to adapt these ancient tools to fit business professionals’ practical needs. One way is to couple them with new research in cognition and psychology. Follow these best practices to improve the persuasive power of your proposals.

1. Know your audience so you can use the right techniques to match their perspectives.

A proposal is a written argument, not the one-sided, contentious bickering of politics, nor the assault on the senses of modern advertising. A proposal is the good kind of argument—an appeal to gain a reader’s agreement, coupled with a call to partner with the author to solve that reader’s problem. When you write a proposal, you are telling a story, and you are trying to convince your reader that:

  • You thoroughly understand his/her problem
  • You have the best solution for that problem
  • You want what’s best for your reader

You do this through the craft of persuasive writing. Persuasive writing is:

  • Personal. It is primarily focused on your reader’s needs and preferences
  • About probabilities. Someone else’s solution might be appealing, but your goal is to convince your reader that your solution is more likely to succeed
  • Conclusive. It leaves no doubt as to the best course of action

Proposal writing has a history of applying structural and linguistic modes of argument to win business. This article presents both traditional and recent best practices in persuasive writing techniques for proposal writers and managers.

Persuasive writing is closely related to the topic of persuasion, which applies throughout the sales process. However, there are a number of strategies that proposal developers can apply specifically to their writing that result in stronger, more influential proposals.

While all writers should think about their audience before they write, persuasive writing is all about the audience. To write clearly, you have to make sure that every sentence relates to the subject. To write persuasively, you have to make sure that everything you say is filtered for your audience.

  • Be specific. Even if you solved a similar problem for someone else, you still have to show how that success will translate to your audience’s unique environment and situation. Do your homework to make sure your solution really fits. Don’t spare the details; use real scenarios and precise statistics and measures to prove your solution is right.
  • Make it personal. Discover what keeps your audience up at night and speculate on the corporate and personal repercussions of inaction or wrong action. The best way to build urgency in a proposal is to make your solution an alternative to real, personal pain.
  • Find common values. To create empathy, your audience must see that you care about the same things they do. People like people who are similar to themselves, so understand their corporate and personal stances on business, social, and environmental issues to see if you have common ground.

This doesn’t mean to simply say what your audience wants to hear. A proposal is a precursor to a contract, so make sure you can deliver what you claim and that you really care about what you say you care about. Remember, a proposal is a true argument that aims for a mutually beneficial relationship—the classic “win-win” situation.

2. Apply the traditional rhetorical principles of argument.

Sometimes old is good. Rhetorical principles were documented thousands of years ago and for the most part are still valid tools for proposal writers. Rhetoric supplies basic techniques that proposal writers should consider.

Structure your proposal like an argument

For a proposal writer, the structure of a traditional, rhetoric-based argument is less valuable because a proposal has its own logical schema. But as you can see in the following table, a simple, unsolicited proposal structure still carries echoes of the original rhetorical structure of argument.

Argument Structure Proposal Structure
Introduction Executive Summary
Informs audience of purpose, creates interest, explains approach, establishes credibility Declares purpose, creates interest, forecasts approach, establishes credibility, summarizes offer
Statement of Fact Current Environment
Sets background of the situation, describes context, explains current conditions Identifies problem, demonstrates understanding of context, establishes needs/wants
Confirmation Recommendation
States position, presents proofs, expresses value States solution, validates solutions with proofs, describes benefits
Refutation Cost Proposal
Addresses gaps, responds to contrary positions Defines costs, expresses value
Conclusion Implementation
Reinforces opinions, amplifies points, rouses emotion and urgency, summarizes Reinforces solution and commitments, establishes timeline for delivery, allocates responsibilities, concludes

What does this mean for the modern Bid or Proposal Manager? Structure matters. Whether you assemble your proposal like a classical argument or not, your proposals will be more persuasive if you build them in a logical sequence.

The rhetorical structure makes perfect logical sense:

Introduce → State Facts → Prove → Refute → Conclude

And while many readers will inevitably go right to the price, one way of reinforcing the logic of your argument is to introduce your proposal sections with summaries that echo the preceding logical sequence. That way, at both a macro and micro level, you’ll be leveraging thousands of years of conditioning in your audience. Here’s how that might work in your pricing section:

  • Paragraph 1 – Reintroduce your proposal’s main idea, slanting it toward the financial value that you will explain in detail
  • Paragraph 2 – Restate the reader’s needs and your benefits in summary form; perhaps in a table or bulleted list. Present each in the same order you used in the earlier sections. Anticipate the financial benefit for each tactical benefit
  • Paragraph 3 – State your complete costs as simply and directly as possible. Make sure you follow your customer’s requirements, if provided. Present the bottom line here and refer to supporting details (line-by-line prices) in a pricing attachment
  • Paragraph 4 – Prove your value by showing total cost of ownership, return on investment, payback period, or other analytical methods (depict in graphical form if possible)
  • Paragraph 5 – Refute any of your reader’s objections to your price, your rationale, or your approach
  • Paragraph 6 – Conclude your pricing section by summarizing the overall value of your solution or demonstrating the added value your solution offers beyond mere price

Establish the validity of your proposal with logic

In proposals, we state claims and provide proofs to support them. This is the most intellectually satisfying of persuasive techniques. The more objective our proofs are, the more compelling is our argument. Proofs take many forms, ranging from the definitive:

  • Technical specifications
  • Test results
  • Certifications
  • Adherence to standards

to the more anecdotal:

  • evidence of past performance
  • Testimonies of satisfied customers
  • Citations of awards and recognitions

To persuade, you must follow every claim with a proof and show how that proof will apply in your reader’s world.

Appeal to the emotions of your audience

If we truly understand our readers, then we know that they are people of passion as well as of intellect. People—although some don’t like to admit it—make decisions as much on emotion as they do on logic. A time-tested persuasive technique is to express how inaction or the wrong action can jeopardize your reader’s well-being. This is known as the “FUD factor” (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

This is where storytelling techniques can be of greatest value in a proposal (see Writing Clearly). Telling a story about what might cause an outage or interruption to your reader’s business is a great way to bring an acute awareness to a problem and its potential consequences—and a way to bring urgency to a decision.

Another technique for eliciting an emotional response from readers is to use vivid language. Again, understanding your audience is crucial for knowing what degree of vividness to apply. You can bring vividness to your writing by using:

  • Common words over their formal equivalents. Informal equivalents are often more emotionally charged, like belly or gut instead of abdomen. Others are simply easier to read, more direct, and have lesser emotional value, like car versus automobile. Beware, however, that the more emotionally charged word may call into question our ethics. For proposals, taking an emotional middle ground with our tone, using less emotionally charged words most of the time, will draw attention to the periodic use of more vivid, emotionally packed words and elicit a stronger response.
  • Concrete words instead of abstract terms. Language is vivid when it conjures an image in our minds. Concrete words (carpenter, endocrinologist) are faster to read and easier to understand than abstract equivalents (worker, doctor). As writers, we may have vivid images in our heads as we describe the workings of process, but if we don’t use words that accurately describe what we see, our readers won’t see things as we do.
     
    Some words are value laden in themselves. Using them in our proposals can either align our message with the values of our readers or build value gaps. Two examples of value-laden words are conservative and liberal. These words are emotionally charged across the spectrum of topics, from politics to religion to finance and beyond. Use them, and words like them, carefully.

Express an ethical character

A final persuasive technique from the rhetorical tradition is known as the ethical appeal. This means forging mutual respect with the audience by encapsulating your logical and emotional appeals with sincerity and honesty. Like knives and guns, techniques of persuasion are neutral, neither bad nor good. It’s all in how you apply them. You can gain your reader’s confidence and convey your strong ethics by:

  • Avoiding fallacies as you present your logical proofs
  • Acknowledging but not exploiting weaknesses
  • Admitting issues in the past, but explaining how they were resolved
  • Showing empathy for people that might be affected negatively by your solution
  • Expressing concern for the environment and a bias for sustainability

Using the ethical appeal provides added substance behind your argument and indicates that both sides will benefit through an agreement.

3. Anticipate your readers’ questions so you can remove reasons for rejection.

Some proposals are rejected because the writer makes it easy for the reader to say “no.” Your job as a persuasive writer is to take all the roadblocks to “yes” out of the way. You can do this by anticipating every point at which your reader may become uncomfortable, skeptical, or fearful. To do that, you have to ask yourself the same questions your reader will ask you, such as:

  • How will this work in my world? Your staging facility is great, but I’m unique.
  • Who will do what work? And why can you do it better than I could myself?
  • How much will it cost? And how much will I save, now and in the future?
  • How can I pay for it? And can I actually make money from it?
  • Why should I do this now? Right now, instead of another time?
  • How have you done this before? Have you done it for someone as individual as I am?
  • Why shouldn’t I stay with the incumbent? Why can you do better than they have?
  • How will you stay on schedule and budget? And how will you address scope creep if it happens?

Be specific with your responses to these questions. Details persuade; generalizations come off as hedges at best and smokescreens at worst. Don’t write: “Some workers will realize productivity gains.” Instead, write: “Your 28 support staff clerks will reduce their filing and follow-up time by an average of 18 percent, or 1.8 hours per day.”

4. Apply Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence to hone your arguments with lessons from modern behavioral science.

Recently, persuasion has given way to a new term: influence. Blogger Nicole de Falco defines the difference between the two terms:

Persuasion is presenting a case in such a way as to sway the opinion of others, make people believe certain information, or motivate a decision. Influence is having a vision of the optimum outcome for a situation or organization and then, without using force or coercion, motivating people to work together toward making the vision a reality.”

While proposal writers should write to persuade, they should also attempt to influence their readers. Proposals should describe a vision of optimum outcomes, achieved in partnership with the customer.

This is why the research of Dr. Robert Cialdini is important to proposal writers. Dr. Cialdini has spent 30 years understanding why people make the decisions they do, and his six principles, the result of research in human behavior, describe techniques that take the traditional persuasive techniques just described a step or two further. The table below lists and defines the techniques, known collectively as Weapons of Influence, and explains how you can use them in proposals.

TECHNIQUE DEFINITION PROPOSAL EXAMPLE
Reciprocity Give something to your audience first, knowing their tendency to act in kind. How you give is important: the more personalized and unexpected the gift, the more effective it will be. Refer to any free studies or analyses you have performed to get your customer to the point of purchase. Cite examples of free trials or beta versions given to your customer.
Scarcity The scarcer something is, the greater its value. The value of its benefits and the uniqueness of those benefits are keys to success. Emphasize the unique benefits of your products and services. Ghost your competition by pointing out clearly what you deliver that they don’t.
Authority Get credible, knowledgeable experts to substantiate your claims. For best effect, be introduced by or cite someone with credentials before you make your argument. Gather or solicit positive reviews and testimonies for your projects and products. Cite awards prominently in your summaries.
Consistency Ask for small, initial commitments before you ask readers to take another, bigger risk. This reinforces the strategy of gaining quick, small wins to set the stage for major initiatives. Propose a trial at an individual site before implementing across an enterprise. Create a staged implementation plan to reduce risk across the enterprise.
Liking People say “yes” more often to people they like, to those who cooperate, and to those who are more like themselves. Find and state similarities you share before making your argument. Leverage your relationships with the customer and his/her influencers. Remain customer-centric by assuming his/her voice and terminology. Drop names of people who have delivered good service to a customer.
Social Proof When others do something, it makes it easier for us to follow. Capitalize on the herd mentality. Provide examples of how other companies in your customer’s industry have adopted your solution.

Research continues on Cialdini’s principles. He and his colleagues Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin have identified 50 persuasive tactics that can improve your chances to win, plus some insights into how persuasive tactics vary across cultures. Note these scientifically supported highlights from this work:

  • “When people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look outside themselves and to other people around them to guide their decisions and actions.” You could provide examples of others who have struggled similarly with buying decisions but come out ahead by choosing your solution.
  • “Anyone who has a range of products or services to offer could make midrange products more popular by offering more expensive ones first.” You could offer your high-end products at a summary level before extolling the virtues and lower costs of your midrange products within an alternative recommendation.
  • “The labeling technique involves assigning a trait, attitude, belief, or other label to a person, and then making a request of that person consistent with that label.” You might classify your decisionmakers as astute business leaders based on public records of winning strategies and decisions, and then connect that success to future success with your solution.
  • “Arguing against your self-interest, which can include mentioning a drawback of your arguments, proposals, or products, creates the perception that you and your organization are honest and trustworthy.” You could directly address a prior failure and show how you have rectified the problem and actually improved service from that experience.

While none of these are exclusive to proposal writing, they can supplement your persuasive strategies and tactics for your proposals.

5. Use graphics and multimedia to immerse your audience in the potential of your solution.

Graphics are powerful tools for persuading audiences. Graphic design influences:

  • Credibility. People equate visual design with professionalism
  • Receptivity. We tend to absorb main points faster when viewing images versus text
  • Stickiness. We recall information more readily when presented with images
  • Responsiveness. Images trigger emotional responses better than words

A variety of design strategies can improve the persuasiveness of your proposals: color, content-revealing graphic layout, informative graphs, and meaningful illustrations. Creating a comprehensive visual strategy that reinforces and enhances your textual messages is a key way to ensure your reader sticks with your narrative and your narrative sticks in their minds.

And this is just regarding print output. Providing product or service demonstrations delivers more tangible proof than mere words, so multimedia presentations of process and product simulations increase persuasiveness even more.

There’s no excuse—other than strict customer RFP requirements—for not leveraging modern video, animation, and simulation technologies as “inserts” into multimedia proposals.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Importance of asking for what you want

The only “must-use” persuasive technique in a proposal is the one that many leave out: asking for what they want. Whether it is someone’s business, someone’s money, someone’s time, or someone’s help, you have to overtly ask for it.

Persuasion is the work you have to do to improve the chances that the answer is “yes.” But all the persuasive techniques in the world won’t work if you don’t ask.

“No” is the end

An answer of “no” may be the end of your chances for a current piece of business, but what you learn about the reader and your persuasive and operational abilities will provide you another chance for “yes” down the road. At least “no” has a resolution. “We’ll think about it” and “maybe” are true dead ends, because you don’t know what went wrong. Was it the solution? Was it your writing? Was it the salesperson? With a clear “no,” you can pursue finding out the reasons why and make progress

Summary

  • Persuasive writing is completely about the reader. Craft every strategy, theme, section, and line with the reader in mind.
  • Rely on the classic techniques of persuasion and adapt and enhance them using research in human behavior.
  • Innovatively apply sound graphical design and multimedia technologies to persuade tech- and media-savvy audiences.
  • Adapt your use of persuasive techniques to match the cultural backgrounds of your audiences.

Terms to Know

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