Business proposals: how to persuade at every level

cartoon of street signpost indicating two different directions

A student recently asked me about writing business proposals that will be read by a variety of readers. Here's his question:

In a multi-level sales process, who is my audience?

I'm a leader with a management consultancy firm, and approving our work often requires multiple levels of leadership to read our work. Sometimes it's the end user who does the reading and then recommends his pick to the buyer. Other times the top buyer does all the reading. In cases in which a writer doesn't know exactly whom to write to, how do you chose which reader you should be channeling?

Here's my answer:

Great question! Writing business proposals aimed at multiple audiences is always going to be a challenge. But you'll be glad to hear it's an easy challenge to overcome. It's certainly possible to hit both readers in the same document – the secret is to create a clear structure and equally clear signposting.

What's signposting - and what's it got to do with business proposals?

What do I mean by 'signposting'? Well, in the real world, street signposts help guide us to a destination. Likewise, in a business proposal, signposts are elements – for example, headings, subheadings and contents pages – that help a reader navigate a text. Such devices allow your reader to scan your document, and to pick and choose what they want to take from it.

Why use signposting in business proposals?

Whether we like it or not, all readers scan. It's why newspapers and magazines 'frontload' their articles so all the crucial information is in the headline and first sentence.

Similarly, busy business readers will be grateful for a business proposal that helps them scan the document – especially if different readers are scanning for different information.

For example, the CFO might be more interested in how and why appointing you will increase revenues and cut costs. Meanwhile, the customer services manager will be more interested in what you can do for their customer satisfaction metrics.

If you want to persuade both parties, the structure and signposting of your business proposal needs to make it easy for the CFO to learn about the financial benefits of your service. Likewise, your structure and signposting need to make it easy for that customer services bod to dig into what you'll do for her KPIs.

How to signpost business proposals effectively

So my advice for you would be to do the following:

  1. Develop a very clear idea in your mind about what motivates each particular type of reader. Craft a separate message (or messages) designed to persuade each reader.

  2. Structure your business proposal accordingly. So group all the messages aimed at the big guns together in one section, and all the messages aimed at the guys on the ground in a separate section.

  3. Make the structure of your business proposal clear by labelling your sections with headings and subheadings that allow the big gun to find what's relevant to her – and, equally, allow her to safely ignore what's less relevant. Ditto for the guy on the ground.

  4. Work on the wording of your 'labels' to make them as compelling, specific and dynamic as possible. For example, 'Boost customer satisfaction metrics by 25%' is a much more attention-grabbing heading than 'Implications for customer satisfaction metrics'.

To sum up, it's all about putting yourself in your readers' shoes and writing your business proposal in a way that reflects each reader's needs.

To learn more about signposting, do check out the free preview of lecture 22 of my online course, Report Writing Made Simple.

Update: here's what the student said about this advice!

Signposting is a great "sticky" term. In reading your note I was able to quickly visualize the sections I can break my proposal into.

Also, great to hear you'll use my question to share it with others online. I feel as if I've done my part to make the world a smarter place. :)