C is for Persuasion

Article published in the Institute of Sales Management "Winning Edge".

Whether you go back 2,000 years to Aristotle’s theory of appealing to people through logic, emotion and ethics or dip into a more contemporary source such as Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence, there is no shortage of advice on how to communicate persuasively. In fact, as with any topic you choose to explore these days, there is so much information it is hard to distill what’s relevant.


In my world of business to business sales proposals, persuasion must happen on the page through the written word. So, over the years, I have gathered a series of tips and techniques from many sources that I squirrel away under four categories:

  • Connection: creating empathy and liking
  • Credibility: establishing your reputation and credentials
  • Clarity: making a clear, strong case
  • Consistency: consolidating your position

Let’s explore each one in more detail.


C is for Connection


Connecting with your audience is natural when they are in front of you. Whether in a sales meeting or presentation, they are physically present. Strangely, the need to connect seems to naturally disappear when writing a document. We lapse into “we this”, “we that” and “we the other”, forgetting the customer exists – out of sight is out of mind.


So, we must get our audience back in our minds at the start of the proposal development process. Who is buying? What are they buying and why? How can we connect with them? 

A sure way to connect is to show you understand your prospect’s problems and can solve them. Your proposal needs to be “responsive” – the proposal term for demonstrating a deep knowledge of your prospect’s critical business issues and desired outcomes. Rather than simply writing about the features of your solution or service, connect your features to your prospect’s vision and paint a picture of the journey you can take together to realise that vision.


To connect more deeply, express the benefits of every feature. Quantify your benefits wherever possible to show the value and return on investment you will bring. This takes time and research, but it will demonstrate care and attention to detail – likeable and trustworthy traits.


Work out what your prospect likes about you. Develop a proposal strategy around these strengths and emphasise them in your document. But avoid coming across as arrogant; replace superlative claims with evidence and subjective opinions with balanced arguments. Complement your positives with humility about any negatives you need to address. Admission of weakness with well-presented mitigation is more appealing than sweeping a problem under the carpet and hoping they won’t notice.


Never forget that “people buy from people”. Even in a business to business context, this holds true. People tend to buy from people they like and trust; our proposals need to connect to these values through sincerity and transparency. 


Finally, remember that people buy from people like themselves, so use “mirroring” to further the connection between you and your prospect. Reflect their terminology, style and spelling in your document. 


A useful template for researching and preparing to write your proposal is shown in Figure 1 below:

Prospect Perspective

Your Position

Critical Business Issues or Objectives





Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Competitors’ Strengths and Weaknesses

List the top three-five

List the high-level solution or service Requirements for each issue or objective

Connect your Features to the Requirements

Explain the Benefits of each Feature

Find a proof point per Benefit

Emphasise the positive and mitigate the negatives of the Features and Benefits

Note the competitors’ positioning

Figure 1: Template for capturing key data for your proposal

An approach that ensures you connect to what’s important to the prospect


C is for Credibility


You need your prospect to believe in you – to believe you will and can deliver on your promise.


Top of the persuasion list in this category is evidence. As indicated in Figure 1, find a proof point for every feature and benefit. Think about case studies, customer testimonials, third-party reports, auditable statistics and reviews of published articles – anything that confirms what you are saying is true. Try to find proof points that align with your prospect’s business; peer approval is more crucial than ever in today’s online world, and evidence shows that other people believe in you.


And there’s more you can do. Writing with authority and accountability will inspire confidence. Try these three top techniques:

  • Use active language to show who is responsible – “the project manager will develop the plan” – rather than passive language, which leaves the responsibility opaque – “the project plan will be developed”.
  • Show commitment by using decisive language – “we will” – rather than “we would”, which sounds conditional. And avoid terms such as “we believe”, which can suggest you are not quite sure.
  • Choose action verbs such as “run”, “build” and “lead” – “we will build the solution on time” - rather than woolly language - “we will ensure the solution is built on time”.

Support your narrative with knowledge and experience to add insight into your reasons for working the way you do. Customers like to know not just WHAT you do, but HOW you do it – this is what sets you apart.     


Two last tips in this section:

  • Avoid negative language (if, buts and maybes) and caveats – they only serve to suggest you might be hedging your bets and avoiding commitment. Instead, include a considered list of risks, assumptions and dependencies, which will show thoroughness and transparency to your prospect and will satisfy your internal governance.
  • Check the accuracy of your spelling and grammar. Even if everything else has gone swimmingly, you can still blow your credibility with a stupid error such as spelling your prospect’s name incorrectly – I recall an excellent proposal for a company with Dairy in its name, except it was spelt Diary throughout.     

C is for Clarity


Nothing is less persuasive than a rambling, cluttered and confusing proposal that wastes your prospect’s time. This is where clarity comes in.


If you receive instructions on how to structure your document, follow them, even if they don’t suit you – remember, it’s clear to them. If the instructions are not clear to you, ask.


If you have the luxury of creating your own proposal structure, design it so it is clear where the prospect can find the information they have requested. The best device is a compliance or response matrix (a table that shows what the prospect has asked for and where it is in your document) in the introduction that allows the reader to navigate with ease.


Within each section, set out your information in a logical order, making one point per paragraph and using sentences averaging 15 words. Use straightforward language avoiding jargon, gobbledygook and unnecessary words to pad your answer out. Don’t think you will impress your prospect with long, complex or flowery narrative – it is more likely to confuse and annoy.


Clarity can be enhanced with graphics – any form of visual representation, such as a photograph, a diagram, an illustration or a flowchart. Choose your graphics early in the proposal development process to reinforce your story and take the place of text. Make sure every graphic is fully legible and its meaning can be grasped within 5-7 seconds. And to be sure the meaning is clear, always include an informative title and an action caption (a benefit-oriented statement).


By the time you come to review your proposal, check you have clearly explained:

  • Your offer - your solution, the delivery journey (who is going to do what, when, where and how) and price.
  • Why your offer is better than and different from your competitors.
  • The value you bring in terms of quantified benefits

C is for Consistency


The final element of persuasion is consistency. Uniformity and predictability instill confidence that you will be true to your word. Consistency should flow from your first prospect interaction right through to delivering the contract. Consider the following ways of showing consistency in your proposal.


Develop the proposal sections or responses to your prospect’s questions in the same way. Maybe a “Summary, Situation, Problem, Solution, Outcome” flow works for you, or “Summary, Challenge, Solution, Benefit, Proof”. There are various formulae – choose one and stick to it so your prospect gets into a comfortable vibe, carried along in a flow.

Select your style at the start of the proposal development process and check you stuck to it.

Did you decide to write in the first or the third person, with your prospect and your company as singular or plural entities? Did you choose a formal or informal tone of voice? Did you agree to mirror your prospect’s spelling and terminology? What font, indent, bullet and capitalisation conventions did you choose? These may seem trivial matters, but the devil is in the detail, and you need to cater for those who will spot and care about minor as well as major discrepancies. Have a go at the “spot the difference” example below: 

A style sheet and writing guidelines will minimise the amount of editing required, but you will still need to do what is called a “gadfly” review – skimming across the whole document to spot the inconsistencies. Allocate this task to someone with an eye for detail. And once all the checks are done, make sure your proposal is immaculately presented and consistent with other published material.


And a final C for Context


A proposal should be one step in a business winning process – preceded by marketing and selling and followed by clarification, negotiation and closure. A proposal plays its part in the overall context of persuading a prospect to select you.


Engaging your prospect early means you can woo and win them over before they request a proposal. This will leave you well-positioned to use the proposal to reinforce and replay everything they have fallen for. Without this, you are left largely guessing – not best practice for a high win probability.


So, for your best shot at persuasion, start early and remember that there is plenty you can do on the page to help them like you, believe in you and understand you. 

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