Engineering Successful Proposals—Time, Energy, Ingenuity, and Language

Steven P. Schultz, Ph.D
Posted on: 09/14/16
Written by: Steven P. Schultz, Ph.D


In such a competitive industry, why do most A/E/C proposals sound the same? When over 50 firms submit proposals for just a small construction project, what are the odds that your firm’s proposal makes the short list? What can you do to get your proposal to the top of stack?  

Anyone who has had to read them will tell you that most A/E/C proposals sound alike. The tiresome language makes it difficult for the reader to find the important specifics they need for their evaluation. It usually starts with the cover letter:

On behalf of Hamm & Aiges Engineers, Inc. (HAE), we are pleased to present this
proposal to . . .

Out of a stack of 50 proposals, how many do you think begin with the same stale opener? How many then continue by repeating the project description word for word that the reviewer already knows?

On behalf of Hamm & Aiges Engineers, Inc. (HAE), we are pleased to present
this proposal to provide the land planning and civil engineering tasks associated
with the planned community for the unimproved 1,400 +/- acres along Winding
Road south of Highway 83 in unincorporated Douglas County Colorado. 

With proposals limited to a set length, space is invaluable; so why waste it? So try stating something right away, something fresh—why you are qualified, why this job, or what sets you apart from the completion.

Having completed three land planning and civil engineering projects just this year we
are ready to take on the Winding Road project. Each of these projects was completed
head of schedule, under budget, and met the drainage and Section 4(f) environmental
challenges that Winding Road presents.  

In the same space, you will have stated something the competition can’t, connected your experience to this project, and pointed out why you

Beyond the cover letter, most proposals are still indistinguishable from one another—sharing the same jargon, hyperbole,  and lack of specifics.  You can pretty much fill in the blank.  Try it—

  __insert_comp_name.png__ is committed to excellence and unparalleled dedication to our
clients. Engineering excellence and a continuing emphasis on technical development
assures that __insert_comp_name.png__ will always bring advanced techniques to any assignment.
 __insert_comp_name.png__ has a uniquely qualified staff and ability to offer an experienced
project team, making us ideally the best suited to this assignment.  __insert_comp_name.png__  
will perform our services to assure we meet as well as exceed all of your expectations. 

So why are so many proposals alike when companies are trying to stand out from the crowd? Possible answers range from running out of time so it’s easier to cut & paste to, well, this is how proposals are supposed to be written.

It’s a team effort to create solid proposals. Best-intentioned teams, however, can become their own cheerleaders instead of critical editors. “Why, yes, we do have state-of-the art facilities, we are unparalleled, uniquely qualified, and our custom-tailored services solve specific client problems.“ The trite boasts sound great to the team, but to proposal reviewers who’ve heard all this before? A director of a major engineering research center once told me: “As soon as I start reading the mumbo jumbo, I toss the proposal.”

Proposal writers need to give their writing a hard time, take a hard-nosed, cynical attitude and ask (as my indifferent teenage son does)—So what? Who cares? What’s in it for me?

  • RivCo,Inc. is heavily invested in the development and utilization of the latest state-of-the-art equipment.

    So what? What’s in it for me?

    Revision:  Using an improved Sonic Leak Pinpointer, each crew can repair ten leaks a week for a potential cost savings per crew of about $60,000 a year.

  • Over the past seven years, HVP has been retained by both the City to provide engineering services on numerous projects and so are very familiar with your specific needs.

    So what? Has it really been seven years? Maybe it’s time we tried someone new.

    Revision: Based on our knowledge of the City’s drainage systems—previous GIS mapping, record drawings, and historic topographical mapping and FEMA mapping—we can begin the system update right away and complete it on an accelerated schedule four months early.

All this takes time and energy, along with a little bit of ingenuity.  It’s easy, however, to get stressed, fatigued, cut corners just to get the damned thing done—but forget that you’re in it to win.

Not every proposal needs to start from scratch, but boilerplate is rarely up to the task, so it needs to be revised for each submittal. 

Boilerplate proposal and marketing writing is widespread . . . and contagious.  As part of writing seminars I run for A/E/C companies, participants send in writing samples ahead of time for my review. In one seminar, a marketing manager attended along with the engineers and architects. The manager’s examples were recently submittal proposals. As the examples shown here, they were indistinct and could have been written by any other A/E/C firm. On a hunch, I clicked File -> Advanced Properties->Company. Sure enough. It was written by another firm—the company where the manager previously worked. 

About the Author: Steven P. Schultz, Ph.D., the president of Writing at Work, Inc., provides writing and editing services along with training seminars to A/E/C firms across the U.S. His work on proposals has contributed to winning capital development projects throughout the U.S. and internationally in Canada, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi. Steve also writes and edits high-profile client deliverables, such as civil design reports, master plans, and environmental impact statements.

Learn more now!


You can also meet with Writing at Work, Inc. at THRIVE 2016 - THE A/E/C INDUSTRY SUMMITThey are a sponsor and exhibitor at the event to be held October 12-14 in Nashville. Steve will speak on Engineering Successful Proposals at THRIVE 2016 Pre-Conference Lunch Presentation on Wednesday, on October 11. He will also be at Writing at Work’s sponsor table #8 throughout the summit.

AEC_INDUSTRY-SUMMIT_2016_FULL-PAGE-ANNOUNCEMENT_FINAL8090.jpgThis is just one of the many reasons why you should join us in Nashville!  Over the years, CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and other senior-level A/E/C firm leaders from around the world have made sure they don’t miss out on this unique two-day event.  In fact, we see many firm leaders come with five, ten, or more members of their leadership team to absorb all that the conference has to offer. 

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