Writing the perfect proposal

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Web Show we are joined by Joe Leech to discuss writing the perfect proposal.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

This season of the Boagworld show is sponsored by Template Monster and Lynda. Please support the show by checking them out.

Paul: Hello and welcome to Boagworld.com, the podcast for those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul and joining me, as always is Granddaddy Marcus!

Marcus: Hello, hello, hello.

Paul: That’s how I am going to refer to you from now on.

Marcus: Ok. I am good with that.

Paul: And joining us Marcus, is Joe Leech. Have you met Joe before?

Marcus: I hate these situations. I don’t think so.

Joe: I think we might have done actually.

Marcus: Oh no…

Joe: I think we possibly have. You see I have a memory for faces. I used to be a teacher so I trained my brain early on to remember names and faces very well. I think we did, I think we met at ‘Future of Web Design’ a few years ago.

Paul: See, there you go Marcus.

Marcus: My hugest apologies. I am crap at putting names to faces.

Joe: Don’t worry, don’t worry.

Paul: Well you see, Marcus is used to being surrounded by adoring fans…

Marcus: …and grandchildren.

Paul: …So one face blurs into another.

Marcus: Well I am sure you are far more interesting than me, Joe.


Joe: That’s an interesting point of view. That’s making up for forgetting me before.

Marcus: Yes, I can’t wait for this show – it’s all I have been looking forward to this season.

Joe: Ahh here we go.

Paul: What? Because Joe is on it?

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. So Joe, I’ve got a horrible confession to make, right. Because we’ve met each other loads and loads of times and we’ve chatted and we’ve had lovely times together and all the rest of it. I still don’t really know what you do? Well I know the kind of work you do obviously as I’ve heard you talk. But you work for yourself, do you?

Joe: I do now. I am a User Experience Consultant of twelve years. And for the last four months I have been working for myself.

Paul: Oh? Only the last four months?

Joe: Yes, that’s right. So I worked previously for a UX Consultancy in Bristol called CX Partners and I’ve been independent for about four months now.

Paul: Oh so we’ve got very similar career paths.

Joe: Yes, it was almost about the same time when I say your announcement that I made mine. I think it was about three or four weeks after you did?

Paul: Wow.

Joe: I just want to be like you Paul.

Marcus: Copy cat!

Joe: I want to be like you.

Paul: I have that a lot. It’s… you know…the number of people you walk around and you see with shaved heads. And I know every single one of them just wants to be like me.

Joe: Yes, that’s absolutely it. Everyone just want to be like Boag. I’ve heard that.

Paul: And all those little people with designer glasses with no frames? Want to be like me.

Joe: There it is.

Paul: It’s true.

Joe: Michael Stipe just wants to be like Mr Boag.

Paul: Absolutely.

Marcus: I have to say Joe, that I do like your job title.

Joe: Oh Strategic Commander of UX?

Marcus: Yes, that’s rather good.

Joe: Well my nephew said that as well. He asked me the same questions – he’s ten and asked ‘What do you do?’ And I tried to explain it ‘Well I do this thing called User Experience which is making the websites easier to use and more user friendly’. And I said ‘I also help companies make decisions and plan the future of what they want to do online and digitally, the strategy stuff’.

And he went ‘So are you a bit like a Commander in the Navy?’ And I am like ‘Yeah’. And he’s like ‘Oh alright. You should have that in your job title.’ So yeah, we came up with the idea of Strategic Commander of UX which of course is a joke. I stick it on my LinkedIn and things like that. I am a Strategic Commander.

Paul: That’s awesome. If other people call themselves Ninjas and Rock Stars, why not call yourself Strategic Commander?

Joe: Well it’s one of the reasons I went freelance, so that I could choose my own job title. Why not go for something that’s grand?

Paul: So how’s it going? How’s the freelance life suiting you?

Joe: Really good actually. I’m really enjoying it. The thing you find when you work for an organisation is that you get loads of emails. And the most interesting thing I’ve found is that all the time I used to spend emailing I now spend doing my accounts and doing my expenses and all of that stuff. So be to be honest? Not very different. I’ve just got all my admin shifted from one wad of emails from HR to being emails to my accountant about VAT. But other than that, I am really enjoying it. Really enjoying the ability to have a bit more control over the jobs that I take and who I work for – to offset the bigger, larger well-paying Clients with the more exciting start-ups and charities and stuff like that as well. So I am enjoying the mixture of all the stuff I can work on.

Paul: And the best bit – you get to keep all the money.

Joe: Well except for the Tax Man.

Paul: Yeah, other than the Tax Man.

Joe: The Tax Man and the VAT and the Accountant and all of that stuff. But yes, you do get to keep some of the money.

Paul: Not that I am money orientated.

Joe: No.


Paul: That sounds really good, so dear listener if you have a UX project, you now have a choice.

Joe: If Paul’s not available, I am always around.

Paul: Well I was about to say the complete opposite of that. So that’s nice they have got a choice between two UX people. Because before that, there was none.

Joe: I don’t know how people got UX done before.

Paul: No idea.

Joe: They paid for one of those expensive Agencies to do it.

Paul: I think Agencies are dead really. Don’t you agree Marcus?

Marcus: [Sighs] Sorry, I was just letting the love in. Carry on.

Paul: You are just jealous.

Marcus: What? That I can’t keep all the money?

Paul: No I think you are just jelous that you don’t get to deal with all the Tax and VAT and accountancy stuff. Because Chris does it all for you.

Marcus: This is very true. I don’t envy you that at all. What I would like—if it was just me, I would go out of business but for a while it would be good—is to do what I liked. That’s how I’ve envisioned your life Paul. You just sort of swan around. Is that right?

Paul: Yeah, pretty much.

Joe: That sums up freelancing life really. Absolutely. If you get paid for swanning around, then you are in a great place.

Paul: Yeah. Basically I write a bit and I speak at the occasional conference if it’s somewhere I want to go to. And I take Clients if they are interesting. But only if they don’t ask me to do very much. That is my life, Marcus.

Marcus: Interesting. I noticed this morning that you announced on Twitter that you do loads of Coke these days.

Paul: Yes I do. This is my new thing. I figure I’ve got all of this money now…

Marcus: And you are a Rock Star Ninja, obviously.

Paul: I am a Rock Star Ninja Strategic Commander, so therefore…

Joe: There is only one Strategic Commander Paul, I’m very sorry but I am going to have to say that’s mine.

Paul: Ok, you can keep that. I’ll just keep Gain Driven UX Consultant. That’s going to be my new job title. No, I obviously meant Coca-Cola. Although with all the references to eating Jaffa Cakes as well, that has drug connotations in my mind as well.

Marcus: Oh the munchies. Different sort of drugs.

Paul: Yes, different drugs. Between the cocaine and the weed I am surprised I have got any time to get any work done.

Marcus: Well you just said you don’t do any. You just swan around.

Paul: Obviously because I am so drug-addled I had forgotten I had said that.

Marcus: But that did cause much hilarity in the Headscape camp this morning.

Paul: I know, I went into Slack because I heard my name mentioned. That’s the only time I go into the Headscape Slack channel now.

Marcus: It’s normally quite a laugh. It’s often quiet for days but then we’ll spend a whole afternoon just ranting or gossiping. And that’s what’s nice about Slack.

Paul: I know. I really ought to be in there more really. Do you use Slack, Joe? You’ve got no one to Slack with anymore!

Joe: Well I’ve got a few channels. There is a good one actually. There is a UX channel on Slack which is a nice global one. It’s got lots of local chapters of that. So the local UX within the User Experience—I am just looking up the address now—it’s User Experience Design, Slack organisation. So there’s lots of great stuff going around. So I use that. I also use lots of my Clients as well. So I’ve got at least five slack groups I am members of because of that. So I do use it, I love it.

Marcus: You’re the second person on this podcast that’s used the word Slack and Client in the same sentence. It fills me with horror.

Paul: That terrifies you?

Marcus: Absolutely, yes. It’s like this sealed box that only Headscaper’s are allowed into.

Paul: Because of the things you say in it?

Marcus: Yes, well we share work spaces in Basecamp and that kind of thing, but not Slack. Slack is for… slacking. We do have project channels as well, but they are normally for… I have got this issue ‘moan, moan, moan’ until someone helps them fix it.

Joe: Well one of the good things, one of the things that I remember about Clients talking about enjoying working with agencies is that agencies are a lot more fun than their day job. So opening up to Slack…maybe that’s something you can put in your proposal, to allow you to come into Slack? You can have a bit of fun with this and that as long as you are working with us. Working with an agency or freelancer shouldn’t be about doing work it should also be a bit of the fun that’s involved with working in an agency. So why not open up Slack to your Clients? What have you got to hide?

Paul: They are very rude about their Clients. That’s the truth.

Joe: That’s clearly not happening, so come on, why not? They’d love it.

Marcus: It’s more a case of being funny at the expense of what the Client does. So it’s not just moan, moan, and moan, that’s not true. There’s very little of that. It’s more a case of trying to be funny at the expense of whatever…

Joe: I hope none of your Clients are listening to the podcast.

Marcus: I am not giving any of the details here. None at all. I am very careful about what I say on this podcast.

Paul: Obviously if you are a Headscape Client, this is not what we are referring to. It’s another Headscape Client.

Marcus: Of course not. Of course not.

Paul: Hey, talking about fun with Clients, we actually had that asked of us didn’t we? Were you in that pitch?

Marcus: It’s ringing a bell.

Paul: With RAF Benevolent Fund. So we went into pitch for the RAF Benevolent Fund and one of the things that the Big Boss asked us in the pitch was he said ‘Look, my guys are going to spend a lot of time working on this project. It’s an important project which is going to take up a lot of their time. What are you going to do to make it fun?’ Best question I have ever been asked.

Marcus: I know we are talking about pitches on the next show, but I try to say that in most pitches. We want to enjoy what we are doing and we hope that rubs off on you and we all enjoy what we are doing. But yes, I do remember that. It’s just you confused me there as we’ve since pitched for another project at the RAF and all the people have changed.

Paul: Oh Ok. No I am talking about the original. When I was still with you.

Marcus: Actually you were still with us when we won that one, the second one. But you didn’t go to it.

Joe: Oh so you did win it, so you won it on the basis that you were fun. So opening up Slack to Clients then sounds like it could be good. If you are having all this fun on it, why not?

Marcus: Ok I’ll do that.

Joe: Everybody loves the mickey being taken out of them, Client, person, whoever.

Paul: Yeah. Look how well it worked. Last week I talked about how I went to Adobe and how I was rude to everybody.

Marcus: Ok. Yes, I am agreeing to you.

Paul: Just to shut us up. Hey Joe, that UX community on Slack you mentioned. Is it the designerhangout.co site? Or is that a different one?

Joe: Err could be. The team is called userexperiencedesign. But yes, it sounds like that’s right actually. They send a weekly digest. It’s really good actually. They have things like AMAs with famous UX-ers. It’s really quite a nice community. Obviously I am saying this while I am trying to find the name of it. Yes, designerhangout it’s called. Yes, that’s right.

Paul: Yes, they’ve got Designing for Wearables. They have events and everything. This is awesome. Why did I not know about this? You must be a better UX Consultant than me. Because I didn’t know this place existed.

Joe: I’ve just got more time on my hands to hang out with other UXers. That’s the difference Paul.

Paul: Yes I am too busy getting stoned and drugged up.

Joe: It’s a very good channel for UX. The UK channel is a lot of fun as well.

Paul: I am joining. I am typing it in now. Everyone has to wait. The podcast is on hold. Boagworld… I can’t even spell my own email address.

Joe: There’s some really good stuff. They have channels about resources and links and consultancy and things. So you can go on there like you would on Twitter but get more of a focused conversation about some of the things you need. So if you were looking for remote testing tools you can have a conversation about that and you get loads of advice, so it’s actually really good. There’s about 81 channels. Job hiring, Job seeking, there’s loads of great stuff.

Paul: The only thing I don’t like about Slack is that it’s so bloody difficult to switch between accounts. Well it’s not bloody difficult, but it’s harder than it should be.

Joe: Yes, especially on mobile. The desktop app is better for that, but mobile really isn’t very easy.

Paul: So I am definitely going to spend more time in Slack. That’s my New Years resolution.


Marcus: It’s not the New Year Paul. It’s your middle of the year resolution.

Paul: Well like I said. I am so drug addled I don’t know. Kids – don’t do drugs!

Right. Shall we move on?

Joe: Yeah, let’s do this podcast thing. Have we started recording yet? Are we starting now, or is this the introduction?

Paul: Well see now it’s interesting. That reminds me of something else we need to talk about actually. We’ll eventually get onto the podcast. I am running a survey at the moment Marcus.

Marcus: Doesn’t work.

Paul: What doesn’t work?

Marcus: Your survey.

Paul: It does work, unfortunately the link that I put in the Newsletter…

Marcus: …is wrong?

Paul: Is wrong.

Marcus: Ahh. Because I was thinking ‘Oh goodie a survey from Paul about the podcast. I can go in and be rude’. And it didn’t work.

Paul: It was only in your email. Everybody else’s worked.

Marcus: Anyway yes. You’ve got a survey.

Paul: So I’ve got a survey I am doing at the moment about the podcast. Well not just about the podcast, but about the newsletter we do as well. One of the questions is ‘Have you stopped listening to the podcast and if so, why?’ Guess what the number one reason was?

Joe: Not staying on target? Rambling too much?

Paul: Too much waffle.

Joe: Yes, you see?

Marcus: I would have thought it was ‘Jokes not good enough’ maybe?

Paul: I didn’t have that option. I should have put that in. Actually now I am looking at it again, it’s saying the number one reason is ‘Other’. Perhaps that means Marcus’s joke?

Marcus: I don’t know. You’ve done this. You’ve surveyed this before. And it’s a black and white thing, a marmite thing. People who like this show tend to like it because of the waffle and if they want a less waffley podcast then they will go elsewhere.

Paul: Yeah, I am not worried about that to be honest. The one I was really after when I asked that question was whether people thought the show had stopped. Because we did stop for a while and I wondered whether that would be an issue.

Marcus: Although we were on series twelve after we stopped.

Paul: That’s true. I just think people thing it’s the same old shit that it used to be so why should I listen to it.

Marcus: Well apart from our lovely guests, it is.

Paul: That’s true. The guests have saved the show.

Joe: Well I am glad I am here.

Marcus: Yes, let the man talk. Let him talk!

Paul: Oh no, we haven’t finished yet. I need to first of all announce that we would really appreciate actually going and doing the survey which you can do by going to Boagworld.com/survey. And we would really appreciate it if you spent a few minutes doing that because we are also going to look at the questions it asks about topics and that kind of stuff.

We will get onto the subject but I do need to quickly mention our sponsor as they make the podcast possible. And also they provide the questions. So our sponsor is Template Monster. Template Monster provided all the questions we covered in the show. They also pay for the transcription so we like them a lot. They offer really great value. In fact, they often have sales going on – and they have one going on at this exact minute we are recording, but by the time this show goes out the sale will have finished. But they are a bit like DFS. If you don’t know who DFS is then you won’t know what I mean. But if you live in Britain all I need to say is that they are a bit like DFS and then you’ll know. They continually have sales so check them out.

They also offer an affiliate programme so you can get money back as well which is great. And they have free samples you can try before you buy which is great. They’ve got an amazing collection of templates, over 46,000 templates for you to look at and download and use on your projects. And not just flat HTML templates. They’ve got WordPress, Joomla, you name it – they’ve got it. You can find out more about them at Boagworld/TemplateMonster so thank you very much to them.

Joe: I bought a template from Template Monster actually for my wife. My wife’s WordPress site. A very nice one as well, so thank you very much Template Monster, I have used them.

Paul: You see, we were talking about that only on last week’s show. I think that’s one of the biggest use cases for Template Monster is getting family members off your back.

Joe: Yes, really good. What’s nice about their templates as well is that they don’t look like the 2014/2015/2013/2012 – if I see another WordPress site with a 2012 theme I might explode. So it’s lovely to see something a bit different. So it’s worth paying £50 for a template.

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Joe: Absolutely. Good old Template Monster.

Paul: They’ve been around forever. I like this, guests are now doing the sponsor slots. This is good.

Discussion on writing the perfect proposal

Paul: Right. Let’s move on. We’re supposed to be talking about proposals. We’re only 20 minutes in and now we’re going to talk about proposals. I think that’s pretty good for us.

We’ve got loads of questions, we are not going to get through all of these questions and there were actually more. Apparently we hit a nerve with proposals. People really struggle with proposals. So we’ve got a load of questions. And there is one question on here which I haven’t written down I don’t think which is ‘Can you get away without responding to these invitations to tender? They are a pain in the arse, producing a proposal is a pain in the arse – can it be avoided?’

Joe obviously you’ve shifted from an agency where I imagine they responded to tenders quite a lot…

Joe: No, not at all actually.

Paul: Oh right.

Joe: So one of the things I enjoyed—it’s quite a small company—and one of the things we did early on was steer away from pitching and proposals where possible. And certainly as a freelancer I won’t answer an invitation to tender, I just won’t do it. And CX were similar and the reasoning behind that was a lot around certainly you don’t know if you are going to get it, you don’t know who you are up against to get it and there is nothing worth being sent a blank document via email and being asked ‘Please respond to this’ without having any real contact from the Client. So I, where possible, avoid doing it and prefer a conversation rather than a lengthy document to get there. So yes, there is a way to avoid it and I try to avoid it as much as I can.

Paul: But one presumes at some point you have got to sit down and write something?

Joe: Oh yes. And do it. Absolutely you are right, you have to sit down and write the thing, but responding to an out-of-the-blue email inviting you to tender a proposal is the worst position to be in with these things. But yes, you just put some pricing together at the very least.

Paul: Now obviously Headscape is very different because of the kind of Clients we work with, invitations to tender are… you just wouldn’t get to work with them if you didn’t do the invitation to tender process. But you still very much make sure you talk to people.

Marcus: Yes, 95% of tenders that come in I will refuse to respond to if they won’t talk to me. I had a recent example of that actually and I broke my rule and basically I wanted to go and see this guy. It’s only in London so I asked ‘Can I just pop up for an hour and have a chat?’ and the brief was alright, but it wasn’t particularly helpful. For many years of doing this sort of thing, talking to people and hearing what they say, often they are very honest and up front about things like budget and timescales and why the project is happening and what the obstacles are going to be, that kind of thing. But often they aren’t, but you can still find that out by reading in between the lines.

Anyway ‘Well I can’t do that because it wouldn’t be fair to the other people tendering, I’d have to see everyone.’ And I thought ‘Oh alright then…’ and I ended up going for it anyway because it was a similar organisation to another organisation we’ve worked with for years, so I thought well maybe there was a recommendation there, which there may well have been. But we didn’t get it and we didn’t get it for reasons that would have easily have come out if I had had a chat with him. So it just underlined don’t respond to tenders blindly. Even this ‘Email questions, and we’ll share the emailed questions with everyone’. Its rubbish and I will very rarely even respond to those types of tenders. I can normally tell if a tender comes in that it’s come via somebody that knows us. And if that’s the case then yes, happy to. It’s pretty rare we will win work, and I say we as the industry, just because somebody fancies working with you. Normally somebody’s boss and somebody’s boss’s boss will say ‘I need three quotes’.

Joe: No I disagree. From my experience with working CX Partners is that the opposite is true. People buy people, they don’t buy a twenty page powerpoint document and a spreadsheet that goes alongside it. I think they want to work with people and certainly if you’ve got the experience and the right kind of profile then they do want to work with you precisely because of that. Not because of your response to a document. I think the document is going through a process.

Marcus: I agree with that entirely. What I am saying is that you can’t get away from the process of having to go up against other people.

Joe: No, I think you can.

Marcus: Well very rarely.

Joe: I think you can. I think it’s about playing the tender game. And I think what it is, is that certain organisations… here’s my experience of how it works.

You are meeting with a particular Client and they’ve said ‘We really want to work with you’. They maybe have seen you speak at a conference, or something has happened and they’ve really bought into your process, your way of working, the way you want to do it.

They say to you ’Oh yes, our procurement department or our boss says we need to get three prices alongside your quote’. They whisper in your ear that this is a formality but we need to get those three prices. And if you are in that position, basically it’s yours to lose.

The worst position to be in ever is to be one of those two people they are about to get quotes from. If they are speaking to an Agency – Bob’s super London agency and they said we’ve got to get two other quotes because we’ve got to go through the procurement hoops to get there, there is nothing worse being one of those two that are then asked to tender for something.

Those are the ones you can sniff and smell – they don’t want to meet me, they don’t want to respond to me, it’s out of the blue and they want it by tomorrow. All of these sorts of things that tell you ‘Hold on the minute, we are not on the inside track for winning that’.

Marcus: ‘We only need four pages – don’t write too much’

Joe: Yes, ‘Don’t write too much’. And it’s like that’s the worst thing because although there are all these things in place to stop somehow something going wrong. You giving it to your brother in law, this that and the other, if you are the right fit for the organisation it will be pretty clear early on if you are or you aren’t. And there’s nothing worse than having to go through an awful ITT way of doing it. Because again, if you are the lead runner you can’t be 100% sure that you are going to win it, so therefore you still have to put the effort into the proposal. The other guys, the two other companies are in the worst situation when there is a proposal ITT for the sake of it.

Paul: I don’t think it happens all the time?

Joe: It does happen all the time.

Paul: And you can’t fight that in some ways? So although you say you don’t respond to ITTs, you are still having to produce a proposal, you are still having to jump through the hoops. It sounds like you are saying the same thing.

Marcus: We kind of are. I think where we differ is I think that there are tenders that go out to the world where the prospective Client isn’t sure who they want to work with. And they might have two or three that they think they might like to work with. And then you are genuinely in a competitive tender situation and you’ve got to weigh up whether you want to go for it or not. Normally in that situation we would. Over the years you learn to see when you are making up the numbers and it is the worst thing of all. I think I have got a pretty good handle on it now, but maybe not, who knows?

I’ve just sent out a proposal today…

Joe: Ahh there we go. My very first job I worked for a big proper agency and I remember this sales guy and he was a classic golf course, weekend on the yacht type salesman. And he always said to me is the worst place to be in a sales cycle is to lose slowly. Losing slowly is the worst because you put all the effort in, it’s stretched out over six weeks, and you’ve built up all this hope. The best position you can be in is you either win slowly or lose quickly. There is nothing worse than losing slowly in a proposal pitch situation.

Paul: Going back to Marcus’s point about where a Client really doesn’t know who they want to work with and that in a Headscape situation you would go and tender for that, you see that as a competitive market, I think probably in Joe’s situation and my situation now, we probably wouldn’t. I don’t want to speak for you Joe. But I take work from people that already know me and there’s a relationship. Now I am happy for them to go out to somebody else because they’ve got to get their three quotes or whatever, but I wouldn’t see a post on some list somewhere and tender for that. It has too lower hit rate for me.

Joe: Yeah I agree, definitely.

Paul: I wouldn’t do that either though, Paul. I don’t trawl the lists because you are wasting your time.

Paul: Ok that’s probably a bad example.

Joe: I think the three of us though, certainly Headscape, we’ve all got quite strong reputations in the industry. We are in the luxurious position of being able to do that. I don’t think this is true for everybody else who is out there. I think the skills that I’ve picked up over the last twelve years of doing sales—which has always been at least a third of my job—have always been smelling the good opportunities from the bad opportunities. And I think the advice we can give from that is that if they won’t speak to you ahead of it, then be careful of that.

What other advice could we give to people that are in that situation who haven’t got the luxury of saying no to this kind of stuff? What advice do you think we should be giving to people to say ‘well this is the best way to win a proposal?’

Paul: Well that’s where you get into ‘it’s about relationship’. It’s about making a connection with people and building up some kind of interaction. It’s about asking astute questions and that’s why it annoys me so much when you have these people that go ‘Oh ask your questions via email and we’ll respond to everyone on the list’. Well I am sorry, but 80% of a successful web designer or UX designer is asking the intelligent questions. And so it feels grossly unfair, when I ask an intelligent question and it gets shared with everybody. That gets right up my nose.

Joe: The advice I got from this sales guy who I learnt so much from earlier in my career is that you hold back on those questions. If they said they are going to share them with everybody you either ask them as open-ended questions in the proposal and try and answer them yourselves or you wait for the pitch to do that stuff. So you are saving the golden stuff for the pitch. If you can spot the glaring hole in the middle of this proposal which, again if you have been doing it for long and if you can, don’t ask the question if they are going to share it with everybody because you are going to give your edge away. Save that up. Put it in your proposal and then do that in the pitch. Definitely.

Paul: Which is really good advice actually.

Joe: Yes, absolutely. Because you ask some filler stuff, those sort of questions because I think it also reflects badly on you if you don’t come back with a question. If they say to you as part of the process ‘If you have got any questions, give them to us by a week Monday’ do come back with a question because it shows you are interested. It’s like at the end of a job interview and they say ‘Have you got any questions’ and you go ‘No’, then it shows that you’re really not interested in it. So you have to go through the motions of it, but do save the gold question for the pitch and the proposal itself.

Paul: I’ll tell you another little tip that I’ve found useful over the years is where they come back and you’ve got the inside track and they say ‘Oh we’d really like to work with you but we really have to go out to tender because our procurement department makes us’. Always ask what the procurement department’s ceiling is. Basically there will be a number and if you go over that number you will have to go through a formal tendering process. Basically if you break your project down into multiple sub projects and keep it below that number, often you can avoid the tendering process entirely.

Joe: Yeah. My advice is you have to be careful as that’s often breaking procurement rules in doing that. By all means, find that stuff out, but don’t shout about it. Don’t say that. Don’t be too obvious that you are doing it. But you are right Paul, absolutely. I’ve done that a number of times and it’s like its fiddly and it’s going a bit against the rules so don’t rub everybody’s face in it by the fact you are doing it, but it’s a great tip that one.

Paul: Right, one of the questions we got asked—it’s a bit of a how long is a piece of string but we might be able to come up with something—is, ‘How long should a proposal be?’


Marcus: As long as it needs to be.

Joe: Yeah, here we go. So unhelpful.

Marcus: Don’t be scared of writing a long proposal as long as it’s covering all of the points that you need to cover, all of the questions that have been asked. I’ve written a thirty page proposal (not a long one for me) – the one that went out today and half of that was images. It’s not a huge effort to read something like that.

Joe: I’ve lost more proposals, lost out at the proposal stage by not having enough detail. That has been the number one reason, and obviously they are not always honest with you when they come back, but that’s the number one reason why I’ve lost most of the proposals I’ve had in my time. Somebody else has had more details or had gone that extra mile and I’ve often lost more because I’ve tried to be to succinct rather than too verbose. So it’s definitely a balancing act, but I would always err on the side of having too much in there than not having enough.

Marcus: Yeah, because people can skim it. Blah-blah-blah. Don’t assume that people are going to understand everything you are on about if you are just providing a simple summary of things. You need to provide detail, especially if people are spending a lot of money with you. You need to show them you know what you are talking about and that often does take quite a few pages of a document.

Joe: It’s the joy of the Appendix. Again what you will find with a lot of proposals is that they will limit you to a number of words. What you can do to get around that to add more detail if they say to you proposal limit is 1200 words. You can submit 1200 words but you can also submit an Appendix. A bit cheeky because you probably shouldn’t do it because it’s bending the rules a bit, but you can either submit and Appendix as another document, or you can submit an Appendix as a website and url stuff off the back of it. So you can get around some of these rules where they say ‘just four pages, just 1200 words’ and again you can win on having more detail by pushing people to a website or an Appendix alongside it. And the best thing to do in those situations is to have a lot of boilerplate stuff, so if you find yourself doing a lot of proposals, spend a bit of time putting together some generic copy on user testing, on the sign off process, on branding. Have some generic stuff that floats around the very specific stuff you put in the middle. Don’t be afraid to go into detail in an Appendix or somewhere else because the very worst place to be is to lose something over detail.

Marcus: I have two things to come back on that. One, is I find we only want x thousand words from you or four pages as a little bit of a sign that maybe they are trying to be kind to those people because they already know who they want to work with. That’s a slight concern for me, that one. And secondly, I have an assumption that nobody clicks on links in documents. I think some people do, but I think a lot of people don’t. So quite happy to put in links to websites as long as you have got some kind of supporting screenshot or something like that. But if you have crucial information, be careful about putting it behind a link.

Paul: Yes, that is good advice. I mean although one thing I do quite like doing is sometimes in the proposals that I write, if there is a particular term or concept that isn’t necessarily immediately – like we use the words User Experience, what does that really mean? What I tend to do with words like that is link them off to an article on my site which often provides a bit of additional context for stuff like that.

In terms of proposals as well, when you get into the realms of working out how long your proposal is, I think you can take some guidelines from the brief that you’ve received. So for example, if the brief is just a short email, then I tend to make my proposals a little bit more succinct, while if it’s a longer document, then I tend to respond in more depth. I also think that you can get a sense of what level of understanding the Client has from their brief as well. So if the Client is saying things that you think ‘Oh they don’t really get this’ then I think your proposal needs to be a little more in depth, it needs to explain itself a little bit more, so additional work needs to go into there.

Marcus: Yep, I agree with that.

Paul: With these longer proposals, because what our advice has been there, is spend longer on it, make sure it’s through and more detailed. Well there’s obviously a cost associated with that. Is there a way you can charge Clients for some of these longer proposals?

Joe: Good question. I’ve only come across it when there’s been a pitching situation and they’ve asked for either creative or particular ideas to do it. I did actually get offered this week from an organisation, they offered to pay a couple of thousands of pounds to pay for the proposal and pitching phase. And in fact I did one last year where they paid £20,000 when I was at CX partners for a whole pitching and proposal phase. So it is possible. What’s interesting about when it does happen is that the people who are offering to pay it are almost more often than not, either ex-freelancers or ex-agency people themselves because they know the cost and the effort involved in going through it. Often if your Client has come Client-side from agency they may well offer you the money to do it. And I don’t think it hurts to ask, if you think it’s going to be a lot of work. But yes, it certainly happens.

Marcus: It does happen and we’ve been paid for proposals, I probably get one a year? I just accept it’s a cost that’s part of it. It’s like marketing, sales you don’t tend to get paid for and it’s part of the sales process and maybe I am old fashioned with that view.

Paul: No I agree Marcus. There is a cost to sales. That is part of running a business and you need to accept it. If you are talking about something very in depth, it’s not really a proposal you are doing anymore, you are talking about a research project. We do that, certainly Headscape did and I’ve done that a couple of times where I’ve turned around and said ‘Well actually you’re a long way from being at a position where you can produce a brief. Actually what you’ve written here is not a brief and actually there is some research that needs doing, there is some business analysis, user research, whatever’ and then I actually propose that as an initial project. Which is often quite a good way of getting round some of the procurement issues and also establish a good working relationship with the Client etc.

Joe: Getting on the inside track, that’s a good way of doing it. The discovery phase is always quite a compelling way of introducing yourself to an organisation. So if your proposal is coming in at tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds it’s easier for your Client to buy if you say well, we’ll do a two/three/four/five/ten thousand pound discovery phase for you rather than a hundred thousand pound build phase with you, that’s less risk for them. Then you can always say to them ‘If it doesn’t work out with us, then at least you haven’t spent the whole of your money or you haven’t got into a full commitment with us’. So I think that is a very good idea Paul, and a good way to often get the inside track on a particular project.

Paul: I think the key with it mind, is to make sure that at the end of that research project they have a deliverable that they could in theory take elsewhere. Because it’s going to make them feel much better about spending that money up front. So it’s a report, you’ve helped them write the brief. Because that’s always the best thing. If you are going to be writing a proposal, if you can get to write the brief as well… which we’ve managed to do numerous times.

Right, next question. ‘How do you deal with the fact that you don’t always have the facts that you need in order to write a proposal’? This was kind of covered when we were saying about asking lots of questions and engaging with the Client. It’s also covered by potentially doing a research phase up front. Are there any other tips around that, or are we done?

Joe: I think that’s probably it really. There are loads of other little things you could do, but on the whole if you haven’t got enough information you find out or use your experience of having worked with similar Clients and fill the gaps in yourself. A good proposal will answer not only what the Client wants, but also anticipate anything that they hadn’t thought about in the first place. Again that is something that will put you ahead of everyone else that you’ve anticipated. You’ve read between the lines, there is something in there that they are missing. Anticipation and going above and beyond what they are asking for, an optional extra on the side of it is going to differentiate you from the other proposals that are out there.

Paul: Right, lets get to the heart of things, because we’ve danced around a little bit. ‘What should go into a good proposal?’

Joe: I think for me, the number one thing is that I treat it like a job application form. If they ask you ten things in the invitation to tender a proposal, you make sure the very least the thing you put in there is that you address absolutely everything that they’ve asked for. And using the same wording they have asked for it in as well. So if they talk about comps, don’t talk about scamps or Y-frames. Use the word comps. Use their language and absolutely go through in detail and in order, following the order that they’ve asked you for things in as well. That’s the number one thing you have to do, which is to address everything they have asked for.

Marcus: I normally start each section with basically repeating back to them what was in the brief. That’s number one rule, really. It’s useful to try and show a bit of character and a good way of doing that is to talk about your team because normally people will want Bios even if they don’t ask for them anyway. Not great lengthy reams but just an idea of who’s in your team, what they do, what they’ve worked on. I think it’s good to scatter examples of work throughout rather than having a ‘This is the examples of work’ section.

Joe: I think that’s it. I think your point there Marcus was, if they say to you ‘We want to do User Research, tell us how you do User Research’. What you say, what you put is ‘This is how we do User Research…our experiences of doing User Research with a similar Client’. If possible, when they ask you something give them a case, a mini story of where you’ve done that before. ‘You’ve asked us to do this’ and you gave an example of the Navy before, ‘Well we’ve done this with the Army before’. A similar situation where you’ve done that piece of work before so you are not only… the big thing is that in any kind of a proposal is that you want to show, not tell what you are trying to do.

So you are not telling people ‘Yes we do User Research’ you want to show examples of it. So another rule – show, don’t tell. And that’s absolutely right Marcus, through scattering in your proposal examples of your work throughout.

Paul: So what about things like references and testimonials?

Marcus: Well testimonial I would guess is an extension of what we were just talking about. So if you have got them and they are good and they fit nicely with the examples you are scattering throughout the document then great. References I include when I am asked for them. If I am not asked for them in a proposal then I will encourage people to contact our clients at the pitch.

Joe: That shows the openness I think if you are saying ‘Yeah, please contact our clients’ it shows you are very comfortable with them doing that stuff and you are very open and have a strong relationship with your clients. That’s always a great idea.

Paul: Is there any kind of thing you shouldn’t do in a proposal? Anything to avoid?

Joe: Yeah, if you are doing a find and replace on another proposal, double-check. Double-check that you haven’t got the old clients name in there! Because honestly, I’ve done it. That feeling when you go back and check and you go like ‘Oh my god, that didn’t go down…’ It happens to all of us, so double check everything.

Marcus: Myself and Chris, Headscape’s MD we check each other’s work all the time but you still miss bits. Especially if you’ve reached the bit about Project Management or whatever which you’ve read a million times before. But the client name is scattered through that section, so absolutely. It’s rude if you don’t do it. People who write proposals are on their hands and knees here, come on I write them all the time! Give me a break!

But if it’s this one document that you’ve been badgering your boss and your boss’s boss for the last six months to get this project happening and you’ve sent it out to tender and you’ve spent ages getting your document right. And then someone sends it back and it’s got the wrong client name in it then it doesn’t sit very well.

Joe: I’ve won work and that’s happened to me before, so… what was interesting as well was that they read the Client’s name and said ‘Oh that’s impressive they’ve worked with them’ because I haven’t mentioned it anywhere else. And they mentioned it to me and I had that sinking feeling in my stomach ‘Oh my god, they are going to tell me we’ve lost it’. But oh no. ‘Oh that’s interesting you’ve worked with them – do you know so and so…’

Obviously don’t do it deliberately. I tell you my worst mistake in proposal writing and pitching generally was a few years ago when it was a really busy time. We got this email through saying we’re interested in this piece of work and I missed the attachment which was like a .pdf letter inviting us to tender for this piece of work. The email said come along at two o’clock for this thing, so I just turned up for this meeting and I said ‘Oh I’m expecting a meeting’ and they said ‘Is it just you Joe?’ and I said ‘Yes’. And they said ‘So where’s the rest of your pitch team?’ and I was like ‘Pitch team?’ And they said ‘We didn’t get your proposal this morning’. And I was like ‘Proposal this morning…?’ And I’d missed this whole .pdf saying ‘Here’s the brief, we want your proposal before you come in, please be prepared to pitch, bring members of your team, blah-blah-blah’. And you know what? We won it. Because I turned up and had a candid conversation with them saying ‘Oh I am really sorry, I must of missed that’. And we had a candid conversation about what they wanted to do, what they wanted to achieve and we actually ended up winning the work.

So I guess what I am saying is that if you mess it up, be very open and honest and say ‘hands up, I made a mistake. I’m very sorry’. Don’t blame it on anyone else, don’t say this, that and the other. Because people know that you are human and actually the human side of it can often be the thing that gets you the work. Not the fact that your super-efficient team managed to get that document by that time and stayed up all night to get it done. Don’t worry. People buy from people. They don’t buy from twenty page documents and flashy powerpoint presentations. They buy from people.

Paul: Which brings us onto the very last question. ‘How to stand out. How do you get your proposals to stand out?’ Should a proposal contain some sense of the personality of the organisation? Is it about flash design and making it look good? What is it?

That’s a tough one.

Joe: I think that good proposals, the ones that stand out are the ones that go above and beyond the brief. They are the ones that show you’ve read it, you’ve understood it. You’ve anticipated what else is needed. That is the stuff that stands on and if you are relying on it to look really flash hot to win the proposal then that’s going to only get you so far. I don’t think anybody is going to be impressed with the design. I’ve had a few people come back to me and say I love the design of your proposal, but that’s never won it for me. I did some work a few years ago for a big phone company and they came back to me and said ‘By far and away your proposal was the most well-designed of all of them. I am sorry you didn’t get it’.

Paul: That’s a poor consolation prize really isn’t it? ‘Oh it’s very pretty’.

Joe: Yeah, so I think you can put some personality, your brand in there but it’s got to be well written, bespoke to the needs of the client. That kind of stuff is going to make you stand out more.

Paul: Obviously you have to thoroughly and completely respond to their brief and answer all their questions, but I always like to have something else. Something extra. My twist on it. My little extra. ‘Well ok, this is what you’ve asked for. This is what I’ve responded to, but you can also do this’. And that would be good. For me, that’s what helps stand out, the fact that you’ve really thought about their situation and their problem and brought something extra to the table.

Joe: And giving free stuff alongside it. I’ll give them a few copy of my eBook as well. I don’t think it’s ever going to help me win it, but I think it’s going to help you get there. It’s showing that you are going above and a bit more beyond. So anything you can do to make the Client’s feel loved and give them sort of flavour what it is to work with you generally, and be generous, both with your time and yourself, I think that’s also going to count very much in your favour.

Marcus: I think a beautifully designed proposal if you are pitching for a piece of design work I think is required. It won’t win you the work, but if you have a really badly designed proposal it might lose you it.

Joe: Yes, I agree.

Marcus: So you haven’t got a choice. It’s got to be gorgeous.


Paul: Ok well we will have to bring it to a halt because we are running out of time. But I do just want to mention Lynda.com before we go. Lynda is another one of our sponsors on the show and they provide over 3,000 on demand video courses on business, creativity, technical skills, and those kinds of stuff. It’s a great place for learning new skills, whether you want to learn about designing websites, coding apps or even running your business. Obviously I have been looking on Lynda to see what they have got about proposals and unsurprisingly they have got loads of stuff. So we’ve only just scratched the surface in today’s show, but if you check out Lynda.com you’ll find videos on

*Writing proposals

*Crafting better proposals

And overviews of proposal writing. There’s loads of more information on Lynda.com and I encourage you to check it out.

Stream thousands of courses on demand and learn at your own schedule. And also you don’t have the huge amounts of waffle that you get in this podcast which is also a bonus. And you can learn at your own pace all for one flat fee.

We might be free, but we are waffle intensive.

There is a ten day free trial which you can check out by going to Lynda.com/Boagworld.


Joe: Can I just say Lynda.com – have you seen that amazing video that Aaron Draplin did last year for Lynda.com? Where he designs logos. It’s like a free video, I think it’s on Vimeo. He does this amazing video on how he quickly designs logos. He’s such a funny guy anyway, but Lynda commissioned him to do a twelve minute video, Aaron Japlin designing logos for free from Lynda. Absolutely fantastic, so definitely go and watch that.

Thanks Lynda for getting Mr Draplin to do that. It’s a wonderful thing.

Paul: Meg, who transcribes the show will no doubt go looking for that Vimeo video and hopefully she’ll find it and put it in the show notes for us. Yay!

Transcriber edit: See below!

I like it like I can now just randomly say ‘Meg sort it out!’

Meg sort it out.

Marcus, do you have a joke?

Marcus: I do. Ian Lasky sent me a joke. I haven’t had a joke from Ian for a while. A good one as it normally is from him.

‘My next door neighbour believes in homeopathy. I hope she likes the birthday present I’ve given her. It’s a piece of wrapping paper that once had an iPad in it’.


Joe: I love it.

Paul: I wouldn’t go as far as saying I love it. But it was tolerable. Well done.

Marcus: I’ve got some silly jokes as well, but I am saving them up. How many episodes are we doing this season, Paul?

Paul: Let’s have a look. This is season twelve. We have fifteen episodes. We are only on episode nine. So we’ve got another six.

Joe: I’ve got some. I’ve got some jokes. I’ve got some topical ones. You’ve probably heard them done a hundred times though.

‘Comic Sans walks into a bar. Barman says “Sorry mate, we don’t serve your type.”’


Marcus: We’re on about our five hundredth podcast and I have repeated most of the best jokes.

Paul: That’s a good one. Have you got anymore?

Joe: ‘Three web developers walk into a bar and swiftly leave once they see the table layout’.

Paul: Now I don’t think we’ve done that one before and probably for good reason, to be fair.


Paul: Alright Joe, thank you for coming on the show. It’s been really good to talk to you.

Joe: I’ve enjoyed myself, thank you.

Paul: It’s always fun to find out how people are getting on doing a similar thing to me. I need to keep in touch with you as we are mirroring each other and I need to know what my next career move is. So I have to wait until you tell me.

Joe: I think the funniest thing is if we ever come up against each other in a proposal writing situation. That would be funny.

Paul: Oh a proposal show-down!

Joe: Because one thing I do to is often it’s good to ask who you are up against if they say it’s a competitive proposal. And I also ask the question what’s the budget. But do ask who you’re up against because then that can help you frame some of your answers because you know who you are up against to do. So that’s another free bit of advice.

Paul: So how would you beat me in a proposal writing… how would you beat me?

Joe: I’d drop hints in there about your coke habit and how unreliable that would make you…

Paul: That’s a good approach. I like that.

Joe: To be honest there could be all kinds of stuff you could do but you never deliberately mentioned your position, what you do is just highlight your positives and leave unanswered questions that they can then ask to other organisations. So if you are up against a big London agency, ask things in your proposal like ‘And the team you meet in the pitch will be the team that does the work’. Because typically big London agencies bring pitch professionals in and you never see them again. So all you are doing is just sprinkling doubt about the other people into your proposal. A bit underhand, but often it can help you win.

Paul: Oh absolutely. It’s part of the process. So there you go – and after joke advice. See a lot of people once we hit the joke stage, they stop listening. And now they’ve missed out. It’s like a post-credit scene in the movie.

Thank you very much for listening guys, and hope to hear from you soon Joe. And for everyone else, please join us again next week when we talk about Winning Pitches.

Thanks for listening.