Proposal writing: 4 ways to emphasize value over cost

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Of all the questions I get about proposals, the most frequent one is that of money. Most writers have no problem arguing why a proposal can solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity, or even how their idea should be carried out. Most of the time, these things are straightforward.

What causes the lump in the throat, and that sinking feeling in the stomach is when the discussion turns from the idea itself to the cost of it; when you stop asking your audience to consider proposal suggestions in the abstract, and start asking for actual funds. As a writer, you can't just ignore the question of money-it's too central to your reader's interests. On the other hand, you don't want to just toss out giant numbers, and let those daunting dollar signs draw unwarranted attention.

So then, what are you supposed to do? Several things, actually. Below are some strategies that can help make your request more appealing to your audience. The thing that unifies all these strategies is discussing budgets not exclusively in terms of cost, but also in terms of value. Let's take a look.

Emphasize the scope of the problem

If your proposal is about solving a problem, several financial dimensions come into play. The most noticeable is the cost of investing in your solution (buying new technology, making a new hire, conducting a more expensive process, etc). On the other side is the cost of the problem itself. Spending $10,000 on something sounds intimidating, but if it solves a $15,000 problem (as measured through lost productivity, uncaptured gains, inefficient solutions or some other metric) it suddenly seems like a smart option. This strategy, of course, involves quantifying financial impact as much as possible. This persuasion is sometimes referred to as cost/cost analysis, and works best with proposals intended to develop a viable solution to a demonstrable problem.

If you're not dealing with that proposal, consider a strategy that will…

Emphasize probable return on investment

Spending money is bothersome only when there's no perceived benefit, so your benefit needs to be clear. With a proven problem, benefits are easy to imagine (“No more problem!”). If you're taking advantage of an opportunity, you may have to project the financial benefits forward, emphasizing what can be generated rather than what can be saved. Forward looking causal arguments are tricky, so be appropriately tentative, but if there's reasonable likelihood of increased sales, contacts, credibility, or efficiency, be sure to say so, and (again) assess the gains fully. This persuasion is sometimes called a cost/benefit analysis, and works best with proposals whose goal is to convince someone to take advantage of an opportunity.

You could also…

Emphasize that your idea is financially preferable to alternatives

Many proposals don't present a single course of action-they consider that action amidst alternatives, and select from among them. If your proposal compares several ideas, try to establish that your strategy is actually the cheapest path, or the path with the greatest value. This is especially true if your chosen solution costs more money than some alternatives, and you need to dissuade people from being drawn to the cheaper, seductive option based solely on financial considerations. When I was learning how to budget for grocery shopping, a friend pointed to some generic products and said, “This is the store brand. It doesn't mean that it's the cheapest. What it does mean is that anything cheaper isn't worth your time.” Sometimes cheapest option isn't best, and strong proposals point that out.

Take advantage of the budget narrative

One common misconception is that your budget section should simply be a spreadsheet-a place where numbers stand alone. However, many proposals also include budget narratives; details justifying especially large line items, or pointing out the costs of accepting a proposal, relative to the costs of doing nothing. These budget narratives-which run anywhere from a few sentences to a few paragraphs, or longer-provide context for costs, unifying the budget with the rest of the proposal and easing sticker-shock, which makes them invaluable.


None of these suggestions disguise costs; they present costs comprehensively. They aren't about deception; they're about persuasion.

In one of my business writing courses, a student pointed out that proposals were challenging because “no one likes to spend money.” I disagreed. If a proposal is well-argued, especially in the budget, a reader will want to spend money, and will do so with enthusiasm and generosity.

For more tips on proposals, check out my Fundamentals of Written Proposals course in the Pluralsight library.

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Alan Ackmann

teaches professional and technical writing at DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, and he is the author of the following Pluralsight Courses: Fundamentals of Written Proposals; Writing Process Instructions and Directions; and Resumes, Research, and Writing on the Job Hunt.