Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Writing Compelling Project Descriptions

If we were to be brutally honest, we'd have to admit that most of the marketing content and proposals we produce are pretty boring. You can confirm that by reading a lot of your competitors' materials. Do you find it really interesting reading? I didn't think so. Now ask: Is your content any better?

Sometimes it's hard to be objective about what you write about your firm. It seems interesting because you're personally invested—as are your colleagues who seem satisfied with what you produce. But what matters is what prospective clients think. And based on the occasional honest feedback I've gotten from them over the years, I think they're bored.

So I want to spend a few posts sharing my ideas on how to generate more compelling marketing and proposal content. Today, let's start with project descriptions, which are important elements of proposals and qualifications statements, and are used to support other marketing and sales functions as well. How can you prepare better project descriptions?

Focus on outcomes, not scope. Every project is intended to meet specific client needs, yet we often describe them as merely a set of tasks and features: "We conducted an engineering analysis." "The renovation included 2,200 square feet of additional office space." But what was the basic problem that we solved? What operational goals did we achieve? Our project descriptions often neglect talking about results, which is what most clients care about most.

Tell a story. The project narrative is almost always far more interesting than the scope of work. People are naturally drawn to stories, so you should describe the project in such manner. The most basic elements of a good story are: (1) conflict introduced, (2) struggle, (3) resolution. So your project description should start by answering the basic why question: Why was the project needed? What was wrong or lacking? Then describe the struggle: The challenges involved. The special skills or approach needed to meet those challenges. Finally, as noted above, talk about the outcomes—how the "conflict" was resolved.

Don't ignore the nontechnical aspects. Our profession delivers significant human and societal benefits, but we often focus only on the technical aspects in describing our project experience. That's unfortunate, not only because it tends to devalue our work, but it fails to align with how most clients view projects. Your project descriptions should address how you met the client's strategic and personal needs—financial savings, operational goals, satisfied users, competitive advantages, great customer experience. 

Make it brief, skimmable. Most project descriptions I see have more detail than necessary. Adding more information on paper often means that less information is communicated. You shouldn't feel compelled to include every facet of the project, only those that matter most (see previous tips). Then present the main points in skimmable fashion, using bold headings, bullets, callouts, photos, graphics, etc.—don't expect your descriptions to be read word for word. Consider creative ways to present information visually with a minimum of text, which leads to my next tip...

Don't settle for less than quality visuals. I know this is easier said than done for firms that can't afford to pay for professional photography or graphic design. But there are steps you can take to upgrade your visuals without spending a lot. For example, find a talented student who's available for a low fee. Or pick someone in your firm who has the ability, but perhaps needs a little training, better equipment, or simply a formal assignment (a lot of the poor project photography you see was never intended to be used for marketing purposes, but that's all that is available). Keep in mind, of course, that there's a higher standard for architecture and planning firms that may demand spending more for quality visuals.

Highlight the project elements that are particularly relevant. I often see boilerplate project descriptions used in proposals, for example, that make no reference to the project being pursued. Worse still, the prospective client would have to dig to discover relevant aspects. Always make it easy for your audience to see the connections. Make those points readily skimmable, perhaps using a matrix to illustrate them. And as I touched on earlier, the common elements need to be more than scope related. They should also align where possible with similar client concerns, needs, goals, and expected outcomes.


Enoch Sears AIA (@businessofarch) said...

Hey Mel! Great points about how to write a great project description. I've also found that a great story is the basis for a compelling narrative.

Mel Lester said...

Hi Enoch, sorry I missed your comment. Your feedback is much appreciated. And thanks for the insights you offer through your website.