How to Write Effective Reports and Proposals

By McTague, Michael | Training & Development Journal, November 1988 | Go to article overview

How to Write Effective Reports and Proposals


McTague, Michael, Training & Development Journal


How to Write Effective Reports and Proposals Any trainer who wants to make a greater contribution to the organization should pounce on situations like this.

It is Friday afternoon. Six copies of a finished proposal, satisfying all the conditions of the 37-page request for proposal, must be on the client's desk by Tuesday, 11:00 a.m. sharp. The proposal is worth $16 million and if successful will completely reverse the company's dismal showing of the last three years. But three of the eleven planned segments have not been started yet. Six are being rewritten by project team members. Some of the members are arguing heatedly across the hall and breaking everyone else's concentration. In another office, the manager of the word processing center is complaining to a team member that his people cannot continue to retype sections as quickly as the team demands. Two writers from the marketing department are on their way over to help complete the final proposal draft. These writers are not familiar with the project, but top management thinks they may rescue the floundering proposal.

This type of scenario--the writing nightmare--has become more and more common in the modern organization, and for many reasons. Corporations are operating in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and even those with long, successful track records in bid submissions find that smaller competitors are gaining ground--not necessarily by offering superior products but by writing skillful proposals. Creating effective reports and proposals within the company is also becoming important: increasingly, staff groups, unaccustomed to the writing process, are required to propose business services and to report committee findings, etc., to their internal clients.

The writing process creates considerable frustration for everyone involved. Many managers hear proposal team members saying that they're sure the firm can do a better job than its competitors. They doubt, however, that their proposal will convey technical superiority. And how many times have you been bored or mystified by an internal report?

This is where trainers can seize the opportunity. In trying to avoid the writing nightmare, the trainer's abilities to organize projects, to assemble needed human resources, and to capitalize on their overall knowledge of the firm could be vital assets.

The mistake of technique

More often than not, however, corporate writers are parachuted into the last stage of the project to improve the quality of the final document. These writers try to create a simple and powerful piece by applying the skills they know best, such as:

* invigorating the language--using adverbs, adjectives, and active voice to change the dull "Productivity will be increased by at least 5 percent" into the brighter "This high technology venture significantly impacts productivity."

* shortening sentences and paragraphs--taking from the spare style of Hemingway and ripping out needless punctuation, useless phrases, and redundant sentences, thereby halving the length of the average paragraph.

* creating a technical appendix--removing everything complicated from the body of the proposal and placing it at the end, in a "Technical Discussion," so that busy executives in the client company are not bogged down with complex issues.

* writing an executive summary--encapsulating the basics of the proposal in a few hundred simple words that provide the correct impetus for a positive decision from the client.

But will this skillful editing at the last minute move your proposal from mediocrity to unparalleled superiority? Based on our observations of hundreds of proposals and reports, we don't think so. Companies that write multi-paged requests for proposals will not be convinced by one-page summaries. Technicians who review your response will not be mesmerized by simplicity.

Human resource professionals will see the weakness of this knee-jerk solution to the scenario above: quick fixes do not work. …

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