I was having dinner with some friends who are consultants for a multinational company, and they wanted to know who handles the “graphics” in our proposals. They are used to preparing elaborate business presentations and were startled to learn that the proposals we prepare are usually simple text documents. That got me thinking about how proposal styles have come full circle and we’ve gone Back to the Future, thanks largely to digital submission requirements.
When dinosaurs walked the earth and I started writing proposals in the early 1970s, I literally wrote them—long hand on legal pads. When I was finished, I would either type them, or, if I was lucky enough to be working for an agency that had a secretary, the proposals would be typed for me. In either case, the proposals more or less looked like ransom notes, with blotchy corrections (anyone old enough to remember Liquid Paper?) and virtually no formatting, except for using tabs and the hyphen key (—–) to create separator lines. The good news was that proposals were much shorter, since they were so hard to physically produce. Eventually I moved up the managerial food chain and earned a secretary with short hand skills. I got pretty good at dictating proposals, but they still looked pretty much like high school term papers when typed.
Flash forward to more “thrilling days of yesteryear” (which started every episode of my favorite TV shows as a kid: The Lone Ranger), when we were starting our business in 1993 and PCs had come of age. We began producing fairly elaborate proposals, with color covers, pie charts, embedded org charts and flow diagrams (using Object Linking and Embedding technology), comb binding and professional appearance. We kept upgrading our color printers and the proposals were getting pretty slick as we mastered the art of formatting.
Now enter The Time Tunnel with me (another guilty TV pleasure from the ’60s) again and emerge around 2001, when we ran into digital submissions. The Feds rolled out two different digital submission platforms, finally settling on grants.gov, while state/local agencies and foundations came up with endless variations. Given the vagaries of the divers digital submission systems, however, we soon learned that there was little point in dressing up our proposals, since the chance of file corruption was simply too great. The formatting party stopped, and once again our proposals are simple text documents, stripped of the bells and whistles. Yes, I know Acrobat can be used to tart-up proposals, but one dirty little secret is that most digital submissions are not reviewed digitally, but are printed and xeroxed—so much for saving trees—and Acrobat does not always faithfully reproduce the original formatting. This is a potential sink-the-ship problem when, for example, there are page limits.
So, in this age of digital submissions, what should a proposal look like? Simple and neat is the best approach. Here are some tips to make sure that your proposals are easy to read and look great:
- Read the RFP carefully for formatting instructions and follow them precisely. For example, if the RFP says the proposal is to be double spaced, and does not make an exception for tables, double space all tables, no matter how silly this looks. The Department of Education, for example, will often reject proposals for non-compliance for just such nitpicking instructions.
- It is generally not a good idea to bind or staple proposals, unless otherwise directed in the RFP (e.g., sometimes a 3-ring binder will be required). Instead, fasten with a binder clip or rubber bands.
- If you want to use a cover page, keep the fonts and colors subdued. An agency logo is a nice touch, but skip the photos unless they are highly evocative.
- Make sure you put the agency name and program title/RFP number in the header on each page. Make sure they are right.
- Avoid odd fonts and stick with Times New Roman when space is an issue or Arial if you have lots of room. The new default font for Microsoft Word, Cambria, is probably also okay.
- Learn to love outlines. If the RFP has an outline format, reproduce it. If not, develop a simple outline format of your own, indenting .2 or .25 inches as the outline descends. It is easy to do this in Word by using paragraph styles. Make Outline 1 “A” with no indent, Outline 2, “1” with a .2 indent, Outline 3 “a” with .4 indent and so forth.
- Never use the tab key or multiple spaces for indentation purposes. Just set up additional paragraph styles to align text paragraphs with outline styles (see above).
- Use tables, rather than charts, unless you are positive the reviewers will not be xeroxing the proposal. Also, it is generally not worth the time to format charts. Instead, put your time into research and writing.
- Avoid bold, ALL CAPS, underlining and other forms of text screaming, with the exception of bolding/underlining the start of outlined/bulleted section. If your words are good enough, the reader will get the idea, and, if they’re not, all the bolding in the world won’t matter.
- We prefer justified text, but some may disagree on stylistic grounds.
- Do not try to squeeze extra words in by kerning the text or narrowing the margins. This will simply make the proposal hard to read, which is not a good idea, since you want reviewers to savor every golden word. We almost never use less than one inch margins all around or tighten the text.
- Place footnotes at the bottom of each page or on a literature citation page, which is easily done in Word.
- Finally, buy a sequentially numbering stamp and paginate each page. This way, when the reviewers drop the proposal on the floor, it can be reassembled. This also helps when creating a table of contents.
There you have it—13 easy steps to proposal formatting. Simple, clean, and consistent are your best friends with formatting, because they help the formatting get out of the way of what matters: the text. Now, go forth and write.