A Picture Paints a Thousand Words: the value of graphics in proposals

Article published in the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management "Winning Edge"

It may be a cliché, but it is one that holds true – a picture really can paint a thousand words. Effective graphics (a generic term used here for any form of visualisation including drawings, photographs, diagrams and tables) make proposals easier to read, improve understanding and enhance persuasion. Yet many proposal teams fail to make good use of graphics, sometimes omitting them altogether. Let’s explore some of the rationale behind why graphics are so useful and how to build them into your documents in a way that is beneficial to both your reader and you.


How do graphics “work”?


First, research has proven that reader retention of information over time doubles with a good graphic and increases up to six times with a combination of graphics and text. This fact is simply illustrated in Figure 1.  

Figure 1: Evaluator recall is maximised by combining text and graphics

Research, undertaken for students preparing for examinations, has shown that recall is improved, after a single reading, when graphics are associated with text

Image courtesy of Shipley Ltd.

Retention is a benefit in the world of proposals because proposal evaluators will have to read several documents and then compare notes with colleagues. This process may take place over several days, so the more memorable you make your proposal content, the better for when the evaluation panel sits down to discuss it. 


Second, think about picking up a newspaper or magazine. The natural response is to flick through and scan the headlines and photos. You might then read the text under the picture and you might read the first paragraph if the headline grabs your attention. Only if you are really interested in the subject will you read the entire article. Imagine now being a proposal evaluator. Whilst some may be diligent enough to read every word, many will scan your proposal and gather the essence of your content from key elements such as headings and graphics. If they can find the information easily in pictures, they may not bother to read the rest and will thank you for it.


Third, remember when you were a child and loved to read stories in books with pictures. Just as those pictures helped make the story come alive, so graphics help a proposal come alive. I always think of writing a proposal like telling a story – the story of the journey that you and your customer will go on together if they select you. If you can visualise your solution and the journey, you will tell a more compelling story.  


When to choose graphics


Selecting your graphics isn’t a  question of doing a quick search through files and folders the day before proposal submission looking for pictures that fit with your story. Graphics should be integral to the proposal development process; you should start to identify suitable graphics when you are preparing your document response structure and planning your content (see "Let's Go to the Movies"). It’s only when you have thought about the graphics in advance that you can get the full benefit of drafting fewer words. 


You can even start to plan graphics during the sales pursuit or capture phase of the business development lifecycle. If you have worked up ideas and diagrams with your customer, carry these forward into the proposal to create excellent continuity and remind the customer of the good work you have done together.


Selecting appropriate graphics


Effective graphics have a number of important characteristics as shown in Figure 2. They will support your win strategy (the approach you are using to ensure the customer selects you over the competition) by helping demonstrate your strengths. They will help persuade your customer by illustrating results and value.






Figure 2: Six key characteristics of good graphics

They easily help your customers see that you understand them and see the reasons to select you due to the value you will bring

Appropriate graphics will link closely with the text, but given a good graphic can paint a thousand words it should not require much additional commentary and will not need reams of explanation.


Conversely, inappropriate graphics would not complement the story at all and would require some considerable explanation – a good test of how suitable your graphic is.  I tend to use the example here of companies that put a photo of their headquarters in an executive summary with a title “Our Headquarters”. This doesn’t survive the “so what?” test. If your headquarters are in central London and your customer is keen that its chosen supplier is close by, then the photo might just work with a title “Our London-based headquarters” and an action caption – the message you want the evaluator to take away - “Conveniently close to ABC’s headquarters to engender team-working”.


Examples of good graphics to select include:

  • Comparison charts or tables: Especially when you can compare your own proposed solution to those from the competition in an objective way to highlight your superior position.
  • Action shots: Photos or illustrations of your product or service in action to inspire confidence that your offer is real.
  • Process flows: Processes are far easier to explain diagramatically or in a series of graphical steps than in text.

The options are many and varied, but remember, whatever your choice, the graphic must be relevant and must convey a strong message. And a good rule of thumb for the number of graphics you should select is two every three pages. On the basis that the average graphic, with action caption, is about half a page, this gives a ratio of 1:3.


Beyond simple graphics


So far, we have only considered graphics on a page, but there are many other visual media these days that may be acceptable to your audience. For example:

  • Videos: Some customers invite short clips such as Youtube or Vimeo to bring to life the proposed solution or the people who will deliver it.
  • Virtual tours: These are especially useful in sectors where 3-dimensional (3D) visualisation is important, such as property and estate management.
  • 3D models: These are highly relevant for spatial awareness and scale in the property development and design worlds. These days, 3D printers are used extensively to create such models rather than traditional hand-crafting.
  • Infographics: The latest trend is for a series of pictures and text that collectively create a short self-contained message or story. Within written proposal documents, they can be helpful to illustrate anything that involves a series of steps such as a process, an implementation plan or a timeline for realising benefits or Return on Investment.

Creating and presenting your visual media


With any visual medium, you will need to design it, create it and present it. When we talk about identifying graphics early, we don’t always mean the finished article. In the early days, a sketch or concept is enough, but it does then need to be developed.


Some companies have graphic designers on their staff, others outsource design work and some will just have to manage with whatever resources they have in-house. Whilst professionally presented graphics are everyone’s aspiration, many people can produce reasonable visual output if the idea is clear. Take the time to work out the concept in full before attempting to use technology products to finalise. At a minimum, ensure that colours and fonts are similar and the overall style is consistent to give some continuity.


When building your graphics into the proposal document, aim to position them just above or just below the centre. Ideally, don’t put them right at the top of the page disconnected from any text. Make sure they are neatly in line with the text or ‘square’ with text neatly to the side.

Don’t forget the all-important figure number, title and action caption.  


With videos and virtual tours, you may need to embed a hyperlink, but try to include a picture clip as well. For models that will be presented separately, again, include a photo of the model at an appropriate place in the document to make it integral to the overall proposal.


No graphics allowed   


I must just acknowledge that some customers, particularly public sector customers using on-line submission portals, may prohibit the inclusion of graphics. If this happens, you must comply and, sadly, dispense with your pictures altogether. Instead, you will need to hone your superior wordsmithing skills. 


Graphic No-Nos


Finally, just to be clear, a note about graphic taboos.

  • ‘Horse captions’, as in Figure 3. A horse caption is simply stating the obvious, like “Our Headquarters”.
  • Clip art, unless very carefully used, as it tends to look naïve and lazy.
  • Afterthoughts and irrelevancies – graphics put in at the last minute or just to make a document ‘look better’.
  • Complexity and clutter – remember the 10 second rule from Figure 2.

Figure 3: A horse

Avoid figure titles that state the obvious! Try… “Trigger, 3-time winner at Ascot. Offering the best odds for a first-time racing investor”  

Image courtesy of bk images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


The final picture


As opposed to the final word, let me leave you with a final picture. Imagine you have implemented all the advice in this article. Behind the scenes, the evaluators enthusiastically applaud the compelling story you have told and thank you for not putting them through volumes of tedious text.  They award you the contract. You make your target and are top salesperson for the year. Nice dream, but I hope the advice will take you one step closer to making it reality.


Contact i4 for a .pdf version of this article: sarah@i4salesperformance.co.uk


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