Friday, April 7, 2017

Is a Conversational Tone in Proposals Unprofessional?

One of my clients contacted me recently with a familiar concern. I had spent a couple of days a few months ago helping his firm improve its proposal process and content. One of the things I taught was to ditch the usual technicalese and write in a more conversational tone. Apparently, they took my advice and were now drawing criticism from one of their executive leaders.

This exec complained that the “colloquial language” he now found in their proposals didn’t project a professional image. He argued that perhaps you could get away with that style with less sophisticated rural clients, but not with larger municipal, state, or corporate clients. I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. It helps perpetuate the painfully drab and overwrought style of writing that plagues the A/E profession.

And it’s based entirely on supposition, not fact—at least in my considerable experience. Even if a few clients had echoed this concern over my 30+ years of proposal writing, I wouldn’t change my writing style or discourage others from following my example. Here’s why:

We’re talking about adopting the style used in the vast majority of business literature. Does the Harvard Business Review lack a professional image? How about any number of best-selling business books? The style in question here is the language of business, hence it naturally reflects professionalism. It’s terribly wrong to assume the way most technical professionals write proposals or technical reports represents a standard we should aspire to follow. On the contrary, it more commonly exemplifies weak writing—by any authoritative standard.

The way technical professionals write is fundamentally nonpersuasive. Traditional technical writing eliminates most of the human element that makes persuasion work. Technical writing is impersonal and objective, engages the intellect, and focuses on features. Persuasive writing is prominently personal and subjective, engages the emotions, and focuses on benefits and experiences. Obviously, writing to technical audiences, you must build a logical and evidence-based argument. But if you truly want your proposals to be persuasive, you must employ the language of persuasion.

We need to distinguish between business and technical writing. Most in our profession fail to do this. That’s why our proposals often convey all the personal touch of an O&M manual. There is a place for the more measured, impersonal tone of traditional technical writing—for example, in reports, manuals, specifications, standards, data sheets. But most of our writing, including proposals, should incorporate the tone of business writing. This includes personal correspondence, emails, copywriting, nontechnical journal articles, and internal memos.

Where’s the evidence that adopting a business writing style is viewed negatively by clients? Being a fact-based profession, it’s interesting how often we let misguided intuition guide our decision making. Usually this amounts to some variant of, “Well, we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.” Even when it doesn’t work very well. When someone tells me that following the conventions of business writing in proposals is unbecoming of our profession, I am typically right to assume that their win rate trails the industry average.

On the other hand, I’ve written proposals to federal, state, and local agencies, to universities, to Fortune 500 companies, to scientific research labs, among others—and have never had a client tell me they thought my writing style or tone was unprofessional. But several have complimented me for my user-friendly, easy-reading submittals. And a 75% win rate over the last 20 years is all the evidence I need to conclude that the traditional notion of professionalism is overrated!

Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your feedback.

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