From the October 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur who writes proposals all the time, here's the one universal truth I can tell you about them: No two proposals are ever the same. When my literary agency has to write a book proposal, it can run 50 to 60 pages. When putting together a keynote speech, my proposal is a one-pager. For the Diamond Group, the company through which I license products, my proposals go into great detail and are extremely lengthy. So if you were to ask how long a good proposal should be, my answer would be "It depends."

But a proposal's effectiveness is not judged by its weight, or even by what is written on the paper. A proposal's effectiveness is based solely on the value you bring to the table. When you do your initial presentation, that's part of your proposal. When you meet your prospects for the first time, shake hands and talk about their kids, that's part of the proposal. When you start listening and asking questions, that's part of the proposal. Because when it comes down to putting something on paper, no matter which way you do it, all these other elements come into play. What you're proposing is the framework for a relationship. Sometimes, when the relationship is complicated by technical issues, a long proposal is necessary to help the prospect make a decision. Other times, the proposal's purpose is simply to make sure everybody is on the same page.

It's not easy to write an effective proposal; there are no rules that cover every industry and every circumstance. But there are steps you can take to ensure that your proposal gets the job done.

1. Focus on the customer's hot buttons. A proposal should focus on how your product or service will help prospects achieve their goals and meet their objectives. Although you may have a standard template you usually use, each proposal should be individualized to meet the particular prospect's needs.

2. Keep it as short as possible. There are times--especially when technical statistics and complicated products are involved--when proposals need to be packed with data. Otherwise, you should keep the proposal as short as possible while still making sure it contains all the necessary information. Proposals that have gorgeous covers, include press releases and a dozen testimonial letters may look good, but the truth is that 99 percent of the time, the prospect will flip through all those pages and go right to the dollars, and you end up selling on price instead of value. Focus instead on what the client really wants to know.

3. Ask the prospect how to write the proposal. Say this: "If you were to get the proposal right now, what would be the three most important points that would help you make a buying decision?" Have the prospect prioritize those points, and then construct your proposal accordingly. If the prospect has formal proposal requirements, ask whether he or she has written guidelines you can follow or even a previous proposal you can review to make sure yours fits within the proper parameters.

Think of your proposal as a tool to forge a strong and long-lasting relationship with this prospect. Focus on what the prospect sells and how you can help him or her achieve those goals. When prospects see that you've put in the time and effort to understand their business and objectives, your proposal is sure to end up making the sale.

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--Steve Cooper