Writing Proposals to Distracted Customers
Distracto David is a project manager in a company that you sent a proactive proposal to. He nearly forgot about it, but he remembered to read it after he saw your mail while cleaning up his spam folder. David is having a great day at work and nearly found the enthusiasm to open that proposal you sent him.
Just as he is about to triumphantly swivel his chair and open your proposal, his wife calls him. She screams at him for forgetting their 20th anniversary. "How could you?", she asks. He apologizes and promises her an expensive vacation to Hawaii. He regrets telling her that, but now its too late.
Once he puts the phone down, he notices a mail from his son’s teacher complaining to him that his son has been getting worse at Spanish class.
Meanwhile, David's boss calls him and screams at him for missing a deadline.Humiliated and agonized, David steps out and vents his frustration on those who report to him. He spews foul language as he beats traffic on his way home. It’s been one hell of a day.
He eats dinner with a fake smile- it's his anniversary after all ! He does not want to read your proposal- but he has to. As he flips open the laptop, he yawns. It is 9:43 PM. In the other room, his kids are watching Stranger Things on Netflix. HIS FAVORITE SHOW!!!
How can you get Distracto David to focus on your proposal? How can you make him have a pleasant experience while reading it? How can you help him remember what he read? How will you grab this poor man’s attention?
I’ve formulated this 4-step approach based on my study of over 120 authentic research and journal articles on the subject of educating kids with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)- something that at 9:43 PM, David most likely suffers from. (Thank you Microsoft, for letting me get free access to this incredible research!)
Figure 1: A 4 step approach that educators use while writing custom content for students with ADD . For more insights, you try reviewing research papers available on this subject on JSTOR or EBSCO HOST
Attention is improved when content is written for a specific audience.
The information relevant to a CEO may not be relevant to the David- a project manager. Before you start writing material or preparing presentations, ask yourself who you are writing to. Don’t be vague while answering this. Answers like “external stakeholders”, “third parties” or “internal audience” will not let you be specific.
If you have a wide range of people you are communicating with – all at once, it is impossible to write something that would appease everyone.
Write for one person. Find out who that one person is from the sales team.Remember that narrowing down your target audience allows you to craft a message that is relevant to them.
That way, you can tell one compelling story that David can relate with.
Write content that enhances positive bias and reduces negative bias. Positive bias increases memory retention
Distracto David is human. He believes he isn’t biased- just like all humans do. However, prejudice and bias are inherent human traits. They shape our behavior. They dictate how David will make a decision before and after reading your proposal.
Hence, it is important for you to make a great impression with your first chapter: the executive summary. Remember that referring to your customer by name- more frequently than talking about your company creates a positive bias.
Knowing your customer's bias must make an effect on how you write, the info-graphics you use, and the statistics you highlight in your proposal.
Remember to reduce your reader's negative bias by using your differentiators effectively.
Figure 2: " Our product's mobility suite enhances efficiency" isn't a concrete differentiator. To make differentiators concrete, associate it with a number and a third party. Eg. "Research from ACME Insights show that our product's mobile solution enhances efficiency by 25%"
Knowing this can help you frame proposals that will truly set you apart and grab a few extra ounces of Distracto David's attention.
The human brain is wired to enjoy doing tasks that can easily be completed.
We want our writing to be compelling and persuasive. Too often, we assume that our audience understands what we are talking about. If we cannot clearly and concisely articulate content, our content will fall to deaf ears and blinded eyes. Jargon is a big no-no. Acronyms are also to be avoided unless- you are sure the customer would understand them.
Suggested Reading: Daniel Oppenheimer's research : Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly
Figure 3: Research from Deloitte shows that 100% of readers who see jargon associate it with evasiveness and rudeness. They often consider the writer to be "obnoxious" and even "evil".
Recently, my mentor, Vasudev Murthy taught me about the fog index. (You must read his brand new novel- Sherlock Holmes in Timbuktu)
The fog index tells you how readable your writing is. Assuming you run your content through the Fog Index tool and it gives you a number like 30, it means that your reader will need 30 years of lifetime education to comprehend what you just wrote.
Removing jargon, shortening long sentences and using simpler language helps reduce the fog index. Sometimes, reducing the fog index also reduces the total number of words in your proposal- thereby making it easier to read.
Content with a lower fog index gathers more attention. Attention can also be retained for longer by using graphics to simplify content that is otherwise verbose and wordy.
Content with a Fog Index above 12 is not something Distracto David would appreciate reading. Especially at 9:43 PM.
Note: This article has a fog index of 10.4
Attention spans improve if the content creates a dialogue in the imagination of the reader
By the end of your proposal, David needs to start day dreaming about how he can pitch your proposal to senior members of his team. He needs to dream of the positive impact your proposal can create in his company.
But for this, you need to end your proposal well.
Too often, proposals start well but end on a loose note. Any research you read about memory retention tells you that you are most likely to remember what happens in the first chapter of a book an what happens at the last chapter of a book. We seldom remember the details of what happens in the middle.
Plan to begin and end well.
Instead of adding an appendix no one would read in the end of the proposal, add content that prompts action.
Consider a crisp chapter that discusses "Proposal Summary and Next Steps". In this chapter shorten your proposal's key benefits to three lines. Get rid of all cliches, jargon and flowery sentences. Add brief information that would help David communicate the message to other members of his team.
Add a weblink that would direct them to a product demo or a link with further reference material.
Experimental research found that using present and future tenses caused greater emotional connections and longer lasting attention spans than past tenses. It was also found that well stitched content – where one section was seamlessly linked to another- was more cause attention longevity. Try to use research like this in your favor.
Remember, the last chapter should not exceed 6-8 lines and must fit in one half of a page.
After reading the last chapter of your proposal Distracto David needs to be able to
1. Quickly recall the whole proposal in a nutshell
2. Desire to make a few notes to discuss with others
3. Gain the motivation to urgently do something you suggested after reading the last line of your proposal.
Finally, here is a great example for excellent endings:
One of my favorite books of all time is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. The book goes into graphic detail on the cruelty of Auschwitz, the apathy of German soldiers under Hitler's orders, and why some people decided to survive while others decided to give up.
The book ends with a brief statement that compels you to take the step to making the world a better place. I read it two years ago, but I still remember it:
“So let us be alert- alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
The ending is great because it answers a simple question: “So what?”.
It compels you to do something after reading the book to prevent the next world war. Maybe... just maybe... next time, you will vote keeping the implications of a world war in mind.
I'd like to thank my colleagues at work who supported me, gave me valuable insight, feedback and helped me with graphics as I wrote this article: Ahshik and Sidhartha Dash
Ahshik is a proposal manager, and a gem. Sidhartha is a graphic designer and he's pure gold! Their work ethic speaks volumes!
Do you have some research that you think I should read? Have a book you would like to recommend? Let me know! Send me an email or contact me on LinkedIn.