Proposals: Length vs. Excessive Length

Voltaire, the great 17th century philosopher and writer, believed in the principle of less is more. He is quoted as saying, “the way to become boring is to say everything.” He is correct, of course, and he would have made a great sales trainer, too. That’s because one of the biggest challenges that we have as salespeople is knowing when to stop talking. All too often, we feel that if we don’t say everything, then the one thing we leave out may be the one thing that captures the prospects interest. Nowhere is this behavior more obvious than in the proposals we write.

Don’t misunderstand the point; I am not suggesting that long proposals are bad. To the contrary, there are many instances when a long proposal is needed to respond to a long RFP.

The issue is not length, it’s excessive length

The issue is not length, it’s excessive length. If it takes one page to thoroughly and completely answer an RFP question, fine. But if your answer is three pages because you included additional information that you think they may find interesting, but that doesn’t directly answer their question, that’s not fine.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White is one of the best books ever written about writing. The following passage addresses this concept of unnecessary length better than I ever could myself:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

When I respond to RFPs, I always think about this passage, and in particular, the part about a drawing not having unnecessary lines and a machine not having unnecessary parts. By continually focusing on what’s relevant, and excluding what’s not, I’m able to avoid writing proposals that are longer than they need to be.

David Seibert is a professional salesperson and consultant for businesses that respond to formal procurements in non-federal markets. Dave publishes a comprehensive curriculum of online, self-paced proposal training classes, delivers onsite and online proposal training programs for dedicated proposal teams, and provides proposal and business development consulting services for businesses that want to improve their win rates. 

Dave is founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses, A/E/C firms, schools, and to state and local governments. Dave authored the popular proposal book, Proposal Best Practices, is active with the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), and is a member of the APMP Speakers Bureau. You can contact Dave at D[email protected].

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