Plain language writing, also known as plain English, is exactly what it sounds like — writing clearly and concisely so that readers can easily understand what you’re trying to say. In the context of business proposals, plain language writing is about removing all ambiguity, confusing language, and jargon from your proposal writing.
Plain language makes your proposal easier to understand, easier to remember, and easier for the buyer to say yes.
To get your message across and help people remember it, keep these seven tips (and grammar rules) in mind when writing a proposal:
Plain language proposal writing tips:
1. Use simple, concrete terms, not difficult, abstract ones
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Less is more,” and business proposals are no exception. Keeping your proposal writing simple makes it more likely that your prospects will understand the point you are trying to convey. You can use industry terms and technical words, but you should try to keep them to a minimum unless your prospect is an expert or you’re certain they know what you’re talking about.
This is especially important when dealing with prospects who aren’t necessarily experts in your line of business and might be unfamiliar with industry-specific phrases. Use simple terms, or if you really need to use an abstract term, make sure to explain it.
2. Use positive words instead of negative ones
Being positive is better from an attitude perspective, and it’s also better from a clarity perspective.
For example, maybe you enthusiastically emailed someone on your team about a potential new project:
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t do this project.”
We all skim when we read. We don’t read every sentence or even every word of every sentence. The phrasing of this sentence highlights the words ‘can’t’ and ‘not,’ leading readers to assume it’s a negative response. Here’s a better way to say the same thing, without leaving anything up for interpretation:
“We need to do this project!”
3. Use simple connectors instead of strings of words.
Linking words can turn simple sentences into complex ones. It can also make you sound pretentious.
Have you ever written something like this in a proposal?
“For the purpose of this project, and in the event it is determined we require more information, we will assume the role of your customer and conduct an audit of your website.”
Next time, try this:
“If we need more information, we will conduct an audit of your website from the perspective of your customer.”
4. Use active verbs instead of passive ones
The active voice clearly identifies an action and tells the reader who is performing that action. Readers prefer active voice because it’s a more natural way of communicating, that also guarantees there’s no misunderstanding of who is doing what.
For example, if you were writing a proposal and wanted to brag about the awesome campaign your agency developed, which do you think is the more powerful statement?
“An online campaign was developed that resulted in bringing in 400 new monthly subscribers.”
“Our team of digital experts developed an online campaign that brought in 400 new monthly subscribers.”
The second statement makes sure the emphasis is on your successful action. Plus, there’s no ambiguity about who did what. This is especially important when you’re outlining roles and responsibilities between the client and your business.
5. Use precise verbs instead of abstract nouns
Verbs exist to describe action, so let them do their job. And while you’re at it, keep it simple.
“Our proposal app will make an improvement on your close rate.”
When you could say,
“Our proposal app will improve your close rate.”
Simpler, shorter, and more confident. Get rid of words that don’t add value.
6. Short, everyday words, not long, academic ones
If you attempt to sound too fancy, people will either think you’re trying to talk above them, or that you’re trying to sound smarter than you are. People like, trust, and hire people they understand.
If you were trying to explain to a prospect why your proposal software is great, you could say:
“Our proposal software streamlines every facet of the proposal ecosystem to facilitate effortless collaboration between internal stakeholders and deliver an unparalleled customer experience.”
But you’d definitely sound like you’re trying too hard.
Instead, stick to shorter words that you might actually use in conversation:
“Our proposal software gives you the control and visibility you need to close more deals.”
7. Use concise sentences with one main idea
Trying to cram multiple ideas into a single sentence can get confusing. And if you try to extend the sentence to fit in more context, it could just sound like you’re rambling.
A simple way to test if you can break up a sentence is to look for the word “and” and see if you can replace it with a period.
Instead of saying:
“Our business provides a suite of cleaning services for offices, residential spaces, and commercial locations, and we also have great prices and a spectacular reputation.”
You can break your point into two sentences:
“Our business offers a suite of cleaning services for offices, residential spaces, and commercial locations. Plus, we have the lowest prices in the city and a great reputation to back us up.”
Gong labs raises a great point in a recent article: there's a fundamental difference between short and concise. Short is about length, but concise is about length and meaning. Longer sentences can work well, but only if they're packed with value. Sometimes you can’t avoid a long sentence, so in those situations, make sure that each word serves a purpose.
Beyond the content and format of your proposal, your writing has a much bigger impact than you might think. While proper use of tone and style can help you tailor your message, the language you use could be the difference between winning your prospect over or getting brushed off for the next, better written proposal.
Remember, if people can’t understand what you’re talking about, they won’t be persuaded by what you have to say. Next time you’ve got a promising prospect in the pipeline, check out our guide to writing a winning business proposal for help securing the deal.