A proposal is a written document. Accordingly, all the considerations which go into writing any persuasive piece apply to proposal writing. You must consider what your audience wants to hear, how they like to hear it and what criteria they use in evaluating what they hear.
It is vital to remember that it is exceptionally difficult to produce a good proposal under time pressure. Leave yourself plenty of lead time.
We recommend writing your proposal in four major steps: 1) outline, 2) preliminary draft, 3) review, 4) final draft. You should review the product at the end of each of these steps.
The outline should be extensive. A good outline contains the first sentence of each paragraph in the proposal. The primary considerations in evaluating your outline are the completeness of the information you will be presenting (Have you addressed all format items in the solicitation?) and the organization of your arguments (Is the argument logical and persuasive?). After you have reviewed and approved your outline, it should be considered "fixed" and unchangeable. There must be exceptionally good reasons for subsequent major modifications to the outline or you will not be able to stay on schedule.
The preliminary draft fleshes out the outline. At this time you should prepare all appropriate graphics (see discussion below). You should treat this draft as if it were a final draft - good spelling, good grammar, etc. are a must.
The preliminary draft should be presented to a review team. If you have competent and qualified people in-house, use them. If not, seek help from outside. In doing so however, realize that highly qualified reviewers often expect and deserve remuneration.
The next step is to prepare your final draft. You should consider all possibilities for improving it and integrate those that seem to have merit. It is at this time that you seek to catch any mistakes, errors, faulty arguments or logic which might have been missed at earlier stages - including mistakes your review team may have missed.
Like any written piece, a proposal should have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning and end are where you highlight the most persuasive reasons for funding your proposal. The middle contains the backup for those arguments, plus an analysis of why any of your firm's weaknesses will not adversely affect performance.
At the beginning of your proposal you must place a technical abstract of no more than 200 words highlighting what you propose to do and how you will do it. At the end you should state these same points in a very brief conclusion. The conclusion should also state why your firm is uniquely qualified for this project. Set yourself a one or two paragraph limit on the abstract and conclusion.
The order of presentation in the middle of your proposal should carefully adhere to the order of items described in the proposal format presented in the solicitation. Reviewers are expecting it this way. Even if you have covered the substance of an item earlier, you should devote a section to that item. The section can be brief, for example, "This item has been discussed under Subsection X."
Guide your reader by starting each major section or subsection with a heading. The heading should clearly identify the topic of the discussion to follow. Your headings should be distinguished from the text through underlining, doublestriking or bold type.
Within each section, choose the placement of your arguments carefully in order to maximize persuasive presentation. In general, it is a good idea to present your strongest argument first, your next strongest argument immediately before your conclusion, and your weakest arguments in the middle. This structure enables you to create a good impression on the reader up front, while saving a good point for the end to overcome any concerns which might be raised by the weaker arguments.
It is also important to be honest with your reader. If your company is weak in one area, present the reader with your solution to that weakness. For example, if you lack in-house expertise for a specific part of your project, state the names of the consultants you will hire to assist you with that part. In this manner, your weaknesses are presented as strengths.
Source: CD: "Small Business Innovation Research Program: Winning SBIR Proposals" prepared by the Small Business High Technology Institute, Project SBIR West, US West Foundation
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