We are delighted to descend into cliché
It’s 2am. The deadline is in seven hours. You’ve been subsisting on pizza, Nurofen and Diet Coke for two days. Your children are just beginning to forget what you look like.
Not the best conditions for crafting a barnstorming bit of writing. Yet it’s in this state that most of our clients find themselves writing bids and proposals, often for millions of pounds’ worth of work. Brands who spend fortunes advertising in airports turn to corporate clichés that are even more tired than their authors, when they should be doing their damnedest to stand out. After all, if it’s a biggie, this one document could be the most important – and most competitive – bit of writing you ever do.
So here are a few tips. We read – and improve – tons of bids and proposals for our clients, usually in the cold light of a London morning when we’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Read these rules before your next all-nighter. I promise you’ll write less. And better.
1. Skip the clichés
97% of proposals start ‘We are delighted to respond to your invitation to tender...’. And while that statistic is made up, it’s probably true. Delighted? Really? Were you gambolling gaily round the office at the prospect of Canary Wharf twilight? No. We write this because we always have. And anything that we see all the time, we never read. Your reader will skip it. You might as well, too.
2. Don’t rehash the brief.
We read one proposal to M&S that started, ‘Marks & Spencer needs no introduction.’ It then went on to introduce M&S. TO M&S! With a load of facts, either from Wikipedia or M&S’s own website. This does not show that you’ve ‘understood the brief’, it shows that you can use Wikipedia. Much more impressive to start with something that no-one else will: your opinion on the brief, or your insight into the brief, or what you’ve learned working on similar briefs. Anything that will get your reader hooked, not yawning, at the beginning.
3. Channel your energies.
We all know what readers do. They read the executive summary, and then jump to the costs (mainly because they’re expecting it to be dull). So it’s worth spending a disproportionate amount of time on those bits, and making sure they’re really good.
4. Stories not studies.
If you put in case studies, or biographies, think of them as stories (or the sort of story you might see in a business magazine, at least). Good stories have interesting characters, seemingly insurmountable problems, moments of high drama. Put those in, and I guarantee your reader will ask you about them when you get to pitch.
5. Write about the elephant.
Or, say the worst thing your reader’s thinking. In most proposals, there’s something we’re defensive about: will they think we’re too small? Are we based in the wrong country? Should we admit we messed up the last thing we did for them? Always better to write about this stuff. You get points for honesty, and it makes you look nice and straightforward to deal with.
There are tons more where those came from. But you don’t need me to tell you them. Find the last big bid your business wrote, and reread it. See what you remember. Notice where you nod off. And next time you’re writing, think like a reader. Because even if you’re feeling sleepy, it’s the last thing you want your client to be.
Neil Taylor is creative director of the country’s largest language consultancy The Writer, and author of Brilliant Business Writing