Unit 23: Proposals

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to identify the parts of effective traditional documents such as proposals.

A proposal is a business document that makes a case for your product or service to a hiring company or funding organization. Knowing how to write a proposal is a vital skill in business because organizations seeking services from business-to-business contractors will often put out a request for proposals, or RFP, to select the right contractor to perform the work. A proposal formally bids on that contract and is therefore essential to gaining work.  Before we dive in deeper, watch this short video overview, How to Write a Business Proposal, on developing business proposals.



Effective business proposals are built around a great idea or solution. While you may be able to present your normal product, service, or solution in an interesting way, you want your document and its solution to stand out against the background of competing proposals. What makes your idea different or unique? How can you better meet the needs of the company than other vendors? What makes your idea so special? If the purchase decision is made solely on price, it may leave you little room to underscore the value of service, but the sale follow-through has value. For example, don’t consider just the upfront sticker cost of the unit but also its long-term maintenance costs. How can maintenance be a part of your solution? In addition, your proposal may focus on a common product where you can anticipate several vendors at similar prices. How can you differentiate yourself from the rest by underscoring long-term relationships, demonstrated ability to deliver, or the ability to anticipate the company’s needs? Business proposals need to have an attractive idea or solution to be effective (Business Communication for Success, 2015).


Knowledge Check

Order of Parts

You can be creative in many aspects of the business proposal, but follow the traditional categories. Businesses expect to see information in a specific order, much like a résumé or report. Each aspect of your proposal has its place and it is to your advantage to respect that tradition and use the categories effectively to highlight your product or service. Every category is an opportunity to sell, or persuade and should reinforce your credibility, your passion, and the reason why your solution is simply the best (Business Communication for Success, 2015).

Table 23.1: Formal Sales Proposal Standard Parts

Report Type Function
1. Cover Page Title page with name, title, date, and specific reference to a request for proposal if applicable
2. Executive Summary Like an abstract in a report, this is a one- or two-paragraph summary of the product or service and how it meets the requirements and exceeds expectations.
3. Background Discuss the history of your product, service, and/or company and consider focusing on the relationship between you and the potential buyer and/or similar companies.
4. Proposal The idea. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Make it clear and concise. Don’t waste words and don’t exaggerate. Use clear, well-supported reasoning to demonstrate your product or service.
5. Market Analysis What currently exists in the marketplace, including competing products or services, and how does your solution compare?
6. Benefits How will the potential buyer benefit from the product or service? Be clear, concise, and specific, as well as provide a thorough list of immediate, short-, and long-term benefits to the company.
7. Timeline A clear presentation, often with visual aids, of the process from start to finish with specific, dated benchmarks noted.
8. Marketing Plan Delivery is often the greatest challenge for online services—how will people learn about you? If you are bidding on a gross lot of food service supplies, this may not apply to you, but if an audience is required for success, you will need a marketing plan.
9. Budget What are the initial costs, when can revenue be anticipated, when will there be a return on investment (if applicable)? Again, the proposal may involve a one-time fixed cost, but if the product or service is to be delivered more than once, an extended financial plan noting costs across time is required.
10. Conclusion Like a speech or essay, restate your main points clearly. Tie them together with a common theme and make your proposal memorable.

(Business Communication for Success, 2015)


Knowledge Check


A professional document is a base requirement. If it is less than professional, you can count on its prompt dismissal. There should be no errors in spelling or grammar, and all information should be concise, accurate, and clearly referenced when appropriate. Information that pertains to credibility should be easy to find and clearly relevant, including contact information. If the document exists in a hard-copy form, it should be printed on company letterhead. If the document is submitted in an electronic form, it should be in a file format that presents your document as you intended. Word processing files may have their formatting changed or adjusted based on factors you cannot control, such as screen size, and information can shift out of place, making it difficult to understand. In this case, a portable document format (PDF)—a format for electronic documents—may be used to preserve the content location and avoid any inadvertent format changes when it is displayed.

Effective, persuasive proposals are often brief, even limited to one page. “The one-page proposal has been one of the keys to my business success, and it can be invaluable to you too. Few decision-makers can ever afford to read more than one page when deciding if they are interested in a deal or not. This is even more true for people of a different culture or language,” said Adnan Khashoggi, a successful multibillionaire (Riley, 2002, p. 2). Clear and concise proposals serve the audience well and limit the range of information to prevent confusion (Business Communication for Success, 2015.

Return to the Proposal Topics menu

Two Types of Proposals: Solicited and Unsolicited

If you have been asked to submit a proposal, it is considered solicited. The solicitation may come in the form of a direct verbal or written request from your manager, but often solicitations are indirect, open bids formally published for everyone to see. A request for proposal (RFP), request for quotation (RFQ), and invitation for bid (IFB) are common ways to solicit business proposals for business, industry, and the government.

RFPs typically specify the product or service, guidelines for submission, and evaluation criteria. RFQs emphasize cost, though service and maintenance may be part of the solicitation. IRBs are often job-specific in that they encompass a project that requires a timeline, labor, and materials. For example, if a local school district announces the construction of a new elementary school, they normally have the architect and engineering plans on file but need a licensed contractor to build it.

Unsolicited proposals are the “cold calls” of business writing. They require a thorough understanding of the market, product and/or service, and their presentation is typically general rather than customer-specific. They can be tailored to specific businesses with time and effort, however, and the demonstrated knowledge of specific needs or requirements can transform an otherwise generic, brochure-like proposal into an effective sales message.

Getting your tailored message to your target audience can often be a significant challenge if it has not been directly or indirectly solicited. Unsolicited proposals are often regarded as marketing materials intended more to stimulate interest for a follow-up contact than make direct sales. A targeted proposal is your most effective approach, but recognize the importance of gaining company, service, or brand awareness, as well as its limitations (Business Communication for Success, 2015).


Knowledge Check


For more on proposals, see the following resources:

Key Takeaway

key iconBusiness proposals target a specific audience.



Locate an RFP (request for proposal) or similar call to bid related to the career you’re training for. Prepare a two-page mock business proposal for it. (Do not include actual contact information; make it all up for the purposes of the assignment.)


GreggU. (2019). How to write a business proposal [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am0Ueo5nyDU

Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2008, June 28). Planning and organizing proposals and technical reports [PDF File]. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/media/pdf/20080628094326_727.pdf

Purdue OWL. (2010, April 29). Reports, proposals, and technical papers [PowerPoint File]. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/656/02/

Riley, P. G. (2002). The one-page proposal: How to get your business pitch onto one persuasive page. New York: HarperCollins.

Writing Help Central. (2009, October 23). Sample business proposal. Retrieved from http://www.writinghelp-central.com/sample-business-proposal.html


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