Writing the Perfect Proposal

I’ve worked on many proposals and executive summaries for industries as diverse as oil & gas and green products. I’m always impressed by the amount of information offered–and depressed by the problems.

Problems That Undermine Proposals

Two problems stand out in imperfect proposals.

The writers are so close to the product (or service) and so enthusiastic that they no longer see the proposal through the customers’ eyes. Belief in your product or service is an excellent trait and should inform any proposal. However, you yourself wouldn’t make a purchase based solely on someone else’s enthusiasms; neither will your customers. They don’t want a sales pitch; they want you to solve their problem.

Because multiple writers are assigned to a proposal, it doesn’t hang together and important information is either left out or repeated so often that it becomes annoying. Proposals take teamwork, but at some point one person should be assigned to ensure consistency, clarity, and conciseness throughout the proposal.

Characteristics of the Perfect Proposal

Your potential customer has a specific issue that you need to resolve. The perfect proposal assures the customer that you understand the problem and have a solution–one that the customer can understand quickly in easily understood terms. The perfect proposal:

  • Identifies the problem or mission of the customer.
  • Explains (in everyday words) how your particular product or service resolves the problem.
  • Focuses initially on the benefits, not the features, of the product or service.
  • Differentiates the product or service to ease the customer’s process of choosing.
  • Delivers the message clearly and efficiently, keeping overall length (including attachments and links) to a minimum.
  • Gives clear contact information, including a specific person’s name, so that the customer doesn’t have to plow through your entire company directory for someone familiar enough with the product/service to answer questions.

At TWP Marketing & Technical Communication, we have over 25 years of experience writing proposals that give customers the information they want in words that clearly differentiate the product and service while exciting the customer’s interest. We can do the same for your proposals. Contact us today.

Happy Halloween! Overcoming Your Marketing Fears

You don’t believe in ghosts anymore but you still understand fear–and how it keeps you frozen in place, even if that place isn’t where you want to be. Here are the top five marketing fears and what you can do to overcome them.

Marketing Fear #1: Missing Out on Even One Potential Customer

This fear leads business owners to pack so much information into their brochure or website that not even the ghost of a customer can slip through. Another response is to create reams and reams of marketing material without any analysis of how it will reach customers. Unfortunately, real customers refuse to mine copy for that one well-buried reason why they should be interested. It’s time for a deep breath and the realization that, no, it isn’t possible to attract all of the people all of the time. However, a focused, clear, accurate, concise message will lure those customers you want the most.

Marketing Fear #2: Not Standing Out

On Halloween, hundreds of little ghosts travel around, yet every parent recognizes his or her own child. There are hundreds of companies that do what you do but your company is still unique. Perhaps that uniqueness comes from your specialized education or knowledge; your perspective on and approach to common customer problems; your willingness to share closely guarded industry “secrets”; or your location, size, inclusiveness, exclusiveness or commitment to Lean, Green or something in-between. I’ve worked with many that offer the “same” products and services, and found a unique message for every one of them.

Marketing Fear #3: Not Sounding Big Enough

Most sole proprietorships and small companies use “we” instead of “I” in marketing copy and that’s fine: the royal “we” is accepted business practice. But many business owners are afraid that their small size means they won’t be taken seriously by potential customers. Instead, they should treat one-on-one service, close geographic proximity or focus on a single aspect of a large industry as assets. Are you a sole proprietor? Let customers refer to you by name in testimonials: “Andy is an expert in choosing window coverings and immediately understood what we needed.” Quickly establish that personal connection that large companies struggle mightily to match.

Marketing Fear #4: Writing/Talking Down to Customers

This fear begins with one of two convictions: either no one can understand what you do or they are so knowledgeable in the field that you have to prove you can communicate on their level. Both fears are easy to overcome if you remember one thing: when it comes to your product or service, you are the teacher and your customers are your students. You must describe your product and service in terms your customers can quickly grasp–analogies are one way to do that–and you must take ownership of the fact that your customers are coming to you because they need your expertise. If they could do what you do, they wouldn’t need you. You’re the teacher. Teach.

Marketing Fear #5: Having Nothing to Say, No Time to Say It and No Budget

This is where hiring a freelance writer (and major fear buster) like TWP Marketing & Technical Communications really pays off. First, I will interview you to draw out the information that your customers want to hear from you. You do have something to say; you merely need help in recognizing it. Next, I will deliver the marketing materials you need most when you need them. You concentrate on your business; I concentrate on your marketing copy. Finally, after your first writing project is complete (say, your first website or brochure or success story), you can wait for the next project until the budget is right–a month later or a year or even two years. I’ll remember you and I’ll still have your old project on hand so that the learning curve for your new project is fast and seamless.

Contact me today and let’s get started on overcoming those marketing fears!

What Professional Proofreaders and Editors Do Best

Once electronic spell checkers and grammar checkers entered the scene, most people forgot how to proofread. But proofreading and editing are still important for two reasons: first, spell checkers and grammar checkers are terribly flawed; and second, proofreading and editing are about more than spelling and grammar.

A professional proofreader and editor will check for inconsistencies in format and content; for cross-references and links that go to the wrong place; and for failures of logic, gaps in information, or unanswered questions that readers might have. We are all prone to mistakes like telling the reader there are seven of something but listing six or eight. Once we have written and revised copy several times, we are likely to overlook missing words (especially pronouns) and even entire concepts because we expect them to be there.

As a professional proofreader and editor of technical and nontechnical websites, white papers, brochures, blogs, and other marketing collateral, I have found that the following steps are always important:

  1. Double check anything that is in bold, a larger font, italics, or other special formatting. Content mistakes are easy to overlook when format catches your eye.
  2. Try every link and cross-reference to make sure they are still valid.
  3. Match illustrations against the text. Inevitably, the bar graph will show a 15% increase and the text will refer to a 25% increase.
  4. Print out everything, even if the audience will always read it online. Mistakes will show up in the printed version that are easy to overlook online.
  5. Check all company, product, association and personal names; never assume they are correct.
  6. Create a style guide. Consistency is important on many levels, but certainly necessary to prevent confusion in the audience or coming across as oblivious to details.
  7. Forget about reading the entire text backwards to catch errors. That technique prevents you from catching “its” when you meant “it’s”; makes transitions, punctuation and format meaningless; and will bore you sick after 4 sentences.

Most important, by letting a professional proofreader or editor review your copy, whether it is in print or online, you gain the assurance that your message is not only written the way you want it but the way that your audience will understand. All too often, if we are very familiar with a topic ourselves, we write as if our audience was equally knowledgeable. For example, we might leave gaps in information–we know how we got from point A to point B, but our less knowledgeable customers become lost. Or we use acronyms or terms that are well-known to experts in the field but not necessarily to our customers. A professional proofreader or editor ensures that your words are reaching your audience in the way you intended.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to help companies communicate with their marketplace. Our words mean business.

Your Product/Service Names: Keeping Proper Nouns Proper

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it sure does confuse the gardeners. Standard names for products and services are essential for any business. It’s easy for a product name to slide from FAST Dataset to FAST Data Sets to FASTData but your customers will wonder if they are receiving one product or three.

A name, a proper noun, indicates a specific person, place or thing (TWP Marketing & Technical Communications versus marketing and technical communications companies in general). Whether or not you have trademarked your company’s products and services, you should spell and capitalize their names consistently.

When your product or service includes a keyword (such as marketing ) that appears frequently in your content, you should lower-case the word when it is not a proper noun (part of the official name). For example, “TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing and technical content for customers.” Capitalizing “technical content” would imply a product or service name rather than generic words.

Here’s a sample paragraph with too many capitals: Like Bolding and Italics, constant Capitals lose their effect. If every Noun is an upper case Noun, then how is anyone to distinguish Your Proprietary Company Name, Products and Services from every other Generic Object in the World? If Everything is Capitalized, what is important and what isn’t?

Acronyms are another source of random capitalization. You do not need to capitalize every word that is the basis for an acronym. For example, take the FAST Dataset (FDS) product. The word “dataset” should not be capitalized in a sentence like this: “all your datasets (DS) are re-organized.” Even though DS is an acronym in both cases, in the first case it is the acronym for a proper noun (FAST Dataset); in the second case, it is the acronym for a generic noun (“datasets”).

Even if the use and misuse of capitals seems nitpicky, you have to look at your content from the user’s viewpoint. Capitals are a reading clue; they alert readers to the start of a new sentence, a proper noun, an acronym or an important concept (FREE!). When capitals are misused or overused, they become an annoyance. They lose their status as clues, directing the reader’s eye to the information you want them to remember.


Bad Writing: Is It Just Me?

A while ago, I posted two blogs on grammar rules that I personally felt could or could not be broken. They inspired some lively conversation, including a comment that bad grammar wasn’t half as annoying as bad spelling. So now I’m throwing the discussion open to some of my pet peeves: do these bother anyone else?

  • The use of texting shorthand everywhere. Okay, I know the future will make desktop computers and laptops disappear and we will all use infinitesimally small keyboards to communicate, but it annoys me when someone is corresponding with me using lower case “I” for the first person singular, abbreviations like “np” and other texting shorthand. Does it annoy you?
  • The roaming apostrophe. There is no such word as its’. The possessive is usually made by ‘s, not s’ (one exception is for a noun that ends in s, like Jones: the Jones’ dog). No apostrophe is needed for plurals (so it is wrong to say: the musicians’ played all night). Does the roaming apostrophe annoy you?
  • Random capitalization. There is no need to capitalize every word when you spell out an acronym, just because the acronym uses capital letters. Save capitalization for proper names and titles. So for a specific name like the Search Engine Company, Inc. (SECI), capitalization is correct; but for a generic phrase like search engine optimization (SEO), capitalization is wrong. Does overcapitalization drive you crazy?
  • Misspellings based on sound or created by an electronic spellchecker. Are you sure you meant lead and not led? County and not country? Sensor or censor or censer or censure? Spellcheckers are notorious for not picking up on simple substitutions so manual proofreading is always necessary. Spellcheckers are also likely to change a perfectly good word into another word simply because they don’t recognize the good word, a major drawback in writing that uses a lot of technical or obscure terms. And never forget to turn to your dictionary if you have any doubt at all about compliment versus complement or phase versus faze. Are mistakes like these your pet peeve?

The advantage of having pet peeves is alertness and consistency: I am alert for roaming apostrophes and common misspellings and consistent in avoiding overcapitalization and texting shorthand. If no one on your team is looking out for mistakes that might annoy your customers and reduce the effectiveness of your message, contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. I’ll make sure your writing communicates clearly and correctly.

Top Five Newsletter Mistakes

A e-newsletter or print newsletter is a great way to remind customers of your brand and your expertise. But make sure you avoid these six mistakes:

1. Distributing your newsletter at random times. Decide whether you have the resources (including the time) to distribute a newsletter twice a year, quarterly, monthly or more frequently–then stick to the schedule so that customers know to expect you. You want customers to ask themselves, “Shouldn’t I be getting a newsletter around now?” And you want them to be glad when it shows up.

2. Packing your newsletter with recycled copy. Newspapers have the Associated Press, which sends stories out across the country. Some industries have the equivalent in associations that provide generic stories for anyone in that industry to recycle in a newsletter. But with the internet providing meaty content on almost any subject, those generic AP style stories have no strength at all.

3. Using photos that have nothing to do with your company. I’ve seen newsletters from local businesses that show dozens of suits striding through skyscrapers–though their customers prefer dungarees and live 50 miles from the nearest ten story building. If you cannot use photos of your own business, projects, products and customers, then at least make sure the photos you do use have some connection to your real marketplace.

4. Proofreading the text but not the headlines. If you ever make an embarrassing mistake, it will occur in the bold, 20 point, underlined, italicized headline. Trust me on this. Another place where errors inevitably occur is in the standard copy; for example, if every issue has a publication date, you will forget to change the date on a new issue at least once.

5. Randomly changing your newsletter’s appearance. Your newsletter is part of your brand and should reflect the styles, colors and fonts you use in your website and other publications. Make sure your logo always appears in the same spot and in the same style. Consistency is a big factor in making a newsletter memorable.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes and edits newsletters as well as blogs, website copy, articles, press releases and brochures for companies in many industries. I’ll make sure that your newsletter attracts and keeps the attention of your customers–no mistake!


Executive Summaries: Three Questions to Ask Yourself

The Executive Summary is arguably the most important part of any proposal; it not only summarizes the features and benefits of your solution, product or service, it also makes your strongest pitch for being the best provider in the marketplace. If you want your Executive Summary to work hard for you, you need to ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does the Executive Summary respond clearly and concisely, right at the beginning, to the customer’s major concern? The start of the summary is not the place to explain how long you have been in business or how your product works. It is the place to say, “You are worried about x; we will solve the problem with y.” The details may be left to the proposal itself, but the Executive Summary must begin by telling the customer that you understand and can solve the problem.
  2. Does the proposal back up the Executive Summary (and vice versa)? Often a disconnect occurs between the Executive Summary and the proposal because they are written and reviewed by different people. The writer or reviewer of the summary might make assumptions about the product or service that are no longer true, without reading the proposal to check. Cross-references may have changed. Make sure that everyone is on board with the facts and that the Executive Summary and proposal are consistent.
  3. Does the Executive Summary include a next step? Because the Executive Summary is often the only part of the proposal that is read, make sure the customer is told what comes next, whether that is a tentative start date or a contact at your company who can respond to questions and concerns.

Especially if your proposal has been written by several company employees, you need to make sure the Executive Summary speaks with one voice, addressing the customer’s expressed needs, supporting the proposal content and including a next step. At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, we take pride in our ability to quickly absorb proposals and then write, edit and proof Executive Summaries so that they represent your company and its solution in the strongest possible way. Contact us today.

Three Reasons Why Good Grammar Pays

So you thought your 5th grade English teacher was kidding when she said good grammar is important?

  1. Bad grammar can send your customers running from your emails or enewsletters. Recently, the founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911 gave consumers advice about how to detect (and avoid) online scams. One of his top clues to identify fake emails was the use of bad grammar. Because many online scammers and phishers are from outside the US, their grasp of English grammar is usually poor.
  2. Bad grammar can change what you meant to say into something entirely different. The US government once changed the taxes on all fruit and all trees by placing a comma in the wrong place–legislation meant only for “fruit trees” instead covered “fruit, trees.”
  3. Bad grammar signals unprofessional service, like a lemonade sign written in crayon. It might be charming in 8 year olds but not in grownups running a professional, reliable business that pays attention to details.

Online grammar checkers are worthless. If you aren’t confident in your grammar, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to review and edit your marketing or technical writing. Make sure your message goes out the way you intended and encourages potential customers to buy.


What Makes a Great Blog Post?

I like writing blogs. I write them for businesses and nonprofits as well as for my own business, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. Some of my blogs have been picked up by industry organizations, tweeted about and discussed on LinkedIn; some of them have led to requests to become a guest blogger or to contribute articles to print and online magazines. Here is my take on what makes a great blog post:

  1. It contains information that the reader is interested in, and it gives details. The reader comes away feeling that he or she has learned something.
  2. It is short.
  3. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Every so often, the blog writer pokes fun at himself or herself or turns an industry cliché on its head.
  4. It has a recognizable and consistent voice. When I write blogs for other businesses, I make sure that I’ve heard the business owner’s voice and that I can translate it into writing.
  5. It appears regularly. If your last post went up two years ago, either take down the blog or find a way to post at least twice a month. Writing a blog more than once a week is very difficult; if you tried that and failed, try again with a lighter schedule.

Blogging has many advantages and works well with your other marketing efforts. You can mention your blog in your newsletter; tweet about it; list it on your business card; and so on. Contact me if you need help; that’s what I’m here for.

Interviews: the Right Questions Equal the Best Stories

Recently, a client asked me to list questions that could be asked during interviews of the client’s customers as a basis for success stories. I am a great advocate of success stories. They combine customer quotes with the company’s marketing message to create a targeted, interesting, before-and-after success story: here’s what we did for someone like you; here’s what we can do for you.

Before any interview, you should gather information about the interviewee and his or her company. Make sure you know as much as possible about the project from the company’s point of view, never forgetting that the customer’s point of view may be quite different. During the interview, these five questions are among the most important:

  • What drove you (the customer) to seek out this product or service?
  • What did you hope to gain? OR What problem did you hope to solve?
  • What results did you actually get?
  • What benefit surprised you–a result you weren’t expecting?
  • If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? OR What advice would give someone else with a similar problem?

The question about results should introduce a discussion about actual metrics. Results may be measured by, for example, numbers (a percentage increase in profits) or actions (a change in services or products) or attitudes (customers better understand the company’s mission). Sometimes the result is a negative: for example, a company trying to motivate employees realizes why their past efforts did not work or a company debating whether to expand to a new market decides against it. Negative results can also be successes.

If you have been waiting for your customers to sing your praises, wait no longer! Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications for success stories that excite your marketplace. We ask the right questions for the best stories.