We’re hearing frequently from customers and prospects that a major pain point in the proposal development process is inconsistency in tone, language, and style across answers. This isn’t a surprising problem, since one proposal document may include contributions from multiple—or even dozens of—writers who, without guidelines, will naturally write differently.
These differences include the not hard to fix problems like using serial commas (or not) or consistent spelling of industry terms (e.g., capitalization of the Internet vs. internet ), and differences that are much trickier to make consistent, like casual vs. formal language or use of active vs. passive voice. So addressing this issue is much more difficult than identifying the problem.
In addition to these considerations, there has been quite a bit of recent acknowledgement that writing effective proposals is a unique writing process and technique. So how can a proposal team approach the issue effectively? By creating and using a proposal style guide.
The Benefits of a Proposal Style Guide
A Proposal Style Guide is designed to set the stage for your team. It should help to answer questions upfront, saving writers and editors time and perhaps even conflict by establishing a set of recommended approaches to language, phrasing, and grammatical rules. It won’t write your proposals for you, but it is designed to help your team increase its efficiency as well as put your best foot forward to your potential clients and customers.
Some proposal teams downplay the advantages of a style guide by stressing the importance of persuasive writing and telling a compelling story to potential customers. But it’s difficult to visualize a cohesive, persuasive story that doesn’t provide a flowing narrative for the reader, conveyed in uniform tone of voice with consistent use of terms and language.
Creating a Proposal Style Guide
There are many resources out there touting the importance of having a Style Guide specific to proposals, but very little detailed information on what to include and how to structure the guide itself. This may leave you wondering how to get started producing a style guide. A good place to start is by looking at the process that Brand and Marketing teams follow.
The Content Marketing Institute provides an overview of the elements to include in a brand style guide including:
- Your Introduction, which might include items such as your company’s mission statement and information about your target audience.
- Baseline styles, which can be sourced from an industry standard guide, like the AP style book
- Formatting rules for elements such as headlines, quotes, or other standard information
- Tone and voice, including recommendations and examples of preferred sentence structure (as well as examples of what not to do)
- Additional details, which should include items such as words to avoid and proper use of industry terminology.
Their recommended structure also includes a section on visual presentation. For your style guide, this may be less important depending on your process for producing proposal content. Determine what makes the most sense for your organization.
One section not addressed above is that of Buyer Personas. Several marketing style guide templates, including one from HubSpot, recommend including this section.
For a Proposal Style Guide, inclusion of personas is essential, because effectively speaking to buyers is the entire purpose of your proposal writing operation. So where a marketing style guide might just include very basic persona information, your proposal style guide should go deeper. You should include points such as common objections so these can be effectively addressed by your proposal content.
Where to Begin?
This might seem like a daunting amount of information to write or compile, but there may be some helpful references at your fingertips. If your company is large enough, your corporate marketing team likely has a style guide in place that they would be more than willing to share. Although your needs are probably different in several areas, it will be much easier to leverage their approach and language as a starting point, then modify it so it better suits the needs and approach of your proposal writing organization.
Marketing may also be a resource for Buyer Personas with greater detail than what is included in their Marketing Style Guide, if included at all. If they haven’t documented personas in a format that meets your needs, HubSpot also has recommendations and a free Buyer Persona template for conducting persona research and developing persona documentation.
Sharing Your Style Guide
The final step is to produce your Style Guide in a consumable format that encourages users to actually use it. You’ll want to keep your Style Guide to a manageable length—a good benchmark is 4-5 pages. And you will want to format the guide in a visual template that makes it scannable so that information and recommendations are easy for your team to find and use in their writing and review process.
Also key will be posting your Style Guide in a place where it is accessible to the team, including outside contractors or others involved in the process. This could mean saving the document to a shared file system that your team uses or creating a pdf that is sent to new team members at the start of every proposal development project.
Keep it Evergreen
Once your style guide is complete, you may be tempted to dust off your hands and move your focus back to proposal writing. But the most effective style guides are those that are updated continuously, not produced with a “set it and forget it” type of mindset. Each interaction with a customer or potential buyer—whether good or bad—includes learnings that you may want to reflect back to your team.