Lecture: Technical Communication Strategies: Ch. 8

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from Technical Communication Strategies for Today. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. Just because I don’t address something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. If you have any questions or need further elaboration on anything about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Ch. 8: Proposals

Proposals come in many forms for many different purposes, some informal and some quite formal with rigid guidelines. During the course of your career you might find yourself working on a number of different kinds of proposals: a short informal proposal to your immediate colleagues suggesting a plan of action, a conference presentation abstract to present on a theory you’ve developed during your work, a Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaign to launch a product your company has developed, a NSF grant, a business plan you present to a bank in hopes of securing a business loan, a book proposal to send to a publisher, a quick elevator pitch you’ve practiced for just the right moment when you have the attention of an investor. Regardless of whether the proposal is informal or formal, and whether it’s submitted in response to a request for proposals or is unsolicited, all proposals have the following characteristics: They are sales and planning documents, they are acts of persuasion, and they function as projections that define the scope and scale of a commitment to do some kind of work.

Proposals as Sales and Planning Documents

As Johnson-Sheenan explains in Technical Communication Strategies for Today, all proposals tend to have a set of basic features, which roughly correspond to the following purposes:

  • Introduction
  • Description of the current situation, which identifies a problem,
  • Description of the Project Plan, which explains what work will be done to solve the problem and may include such information as the time frame, location where the work will be done, and materials and equipment to be used,
  • Review the qualifications, which will identify the people who will work on the problem and argue for their qualifications,
  • Discussion of the costs and benefits, and the
  • Budget, which estimates the cost necessary to do the work.

In doing each of these things, a proposal makes a sales pitch that you should be given something (funding, a contract, permission to start, etc.) and presents a basic plan as to what you will do should that something be given.

Proposals as Persuasion

As proposals are sales pitches and planning documents, the goal of a proposal is to persuade the proposal reviewer(s) that there is a problem to be addressed, that you are qualified to address that problem, and that you have a plan to see the problem addressed.

Proposals as Projections

Because a proposal is a planning document that explains how you will go about to solve the problem needing to be addressed, the equipment and materials needed to address that problem, a time frame in which the work will be done, and the costs involved, a proposal defines a set of commitments you are promising to undertake. In order to make an effective — persuasive — argument, you need to present your plan in as much detail as you can so that proposal reviewers can evaluate your proposal’s feasibility, often in comparison with other competing proposals. And if they accept your proposal, they will expect, within reason, for you to adhere to the conditions which you promised.

Planning and Writing Proposals

Some key issues in planning and writing proposals include:

  • thinking in terms of both how long it will take to write the proposal and how long it will take to do the work promised in the proposal
  • understanding the criteria by which the proposal will be evaluated
  • learning how the review process for the proposal works
  • making sure that you have the appropriate permissions to make the proposal
  • understanding the request for proposals if there is one to ensure that you are addressing their needs and requirements
  • using the requirements as an outline and a compliance matrix
  • developing a work plan and schedule to produce the proposal, leaving enough time for revision
  • preparing a style and format guide should one be needed

Proposal Contents

While proposals typically have the basic features listed above, the contents of each proposal will vary depending upon the context. Solicited proposals often include a description of what your proposal should include, and when they do always follow their guidelines. The easiest way to get your proposal rejects, no matter how good it is, is to ignore the requirements listed in a request for proposals.

Johnson-Sheenan’s list of basic features on page 200 gives us a rough guide of what to expect in a proposal.

Compliance Matrix Example
Example of a basic compliance matrix. Figure 11.4 in The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication, 2nd ed.

Front Matter: The front matter may include a letter or memo of transmittal, a cover page, a summary, a table of contents, a list of figures and tables, and a compliance matrix (similar to a table of contents but based upon the requirements listed in the request for proposals). The inclusion or exclusion of each of these items will depend upon your specific requirements, however you should consider a letter or memo of transmittal to be necessary, even if it’s just an email informing the recipient that you are submitting your proposal titled “My Really Cool Proposal” in response to their call for proposals.

Body of the Proposal: The current situation, project plan, qualifications, costs and benefits, and budget make up the body of your proposal and, again, what you include or exclude will depend upon your particular needs. Some proposal genres divide these elements into up to three different formal sections: a technical section, a management section, and a budget section.

The technical section includes such information the problem you wish to address, your objectives, and statement of the work you will undertake, including your methodology, and the expected results.

The management section includes such information as who will do the work and their qualifications, and where and when the work will be done, possibly including detailed task breakdowns and schedules, often described both through narrative and with a Gantt chart.

The budget section will provide a detailed breakdown of the money needed for the project with explanations of how and why that money will be spent.

Back Matter: The back matter may include a list of references to scholarship and other documents used to inform your proposal and supporting materials such as curriculum vitae and resumes of principle investigators and project leaders, letters of reference, lists of relevant previous contracts and/or publications, etc.