Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Technically Nonpersuasive

As a proposal manager, I've been fortunate to enjoy some notable success over the years. My win rate is 75%. One of my key strategies: I rewrite most of what I get from other team members.

Why? Well, few of you would disagree that technical professionals often lack strong writing skills. So I improve grammar, sentence structure, clarity, and organization. But more importantly, most technical professionals don't know how to write persuasively. In fact, they've been taught how not to.

There are fundamental differences between traditional technical communication and persuasive communication:

  • Technical communication is supposed to be objective and impersonal. Just the facts, ma'am. But persuasive communication must connect at the personal level. Points of differentiation are typically subjective (don't fall for the myth that the selection process is really objective).
  • Technical communication primarily evokes an intellectual response, by design. Persuasion, however, is powered primarily by an emotional response.
  • Technical communication stresses the features of a design, solution, or qualification. Persuasive communication emphasizes the benefits to the client.
  • Technical communication is information-driven--the more data and facts, the better. But persuasion usually turns on only a few points of differentiation. The key is focusing your proposal on those few key points.

The problem is most technical professionals write proposals like a technical report rather than the sales document it is. They avoid personal language, keep opinions to themselves, provide more detail than the client cares to read, obscure the main selling points. It is the human spirit that inspires and persuades, and there is precious little of it evident in the typical A/E proposal. So my advice for writing better proposals would include this unconventional wisdom: Let your hair down a little and let your humanity show.

One final point: A common theme in the literature for professional service providers is to aspire to become a trusted advisor rather than just another expert. The difference should be reflected in our proposals (and presentations and sales calls). Advisors connect at a personal level, share their opinions, focus on what really matters to the client, and communicate their value proposition clearly. Experts, well, write proposals like we do. Have you noticed that expertise is becoming a commodity?

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