Lesson: Persuasion in Proposals

Lecture Notes
Persuasion in Proposals

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” — Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The Key: Appealing to Your Audience’s Organizational Goals

Many proposal writers fall into the trap of being self-referential; they think about the problem from their point of view – NOT their audience’s. When proposal writers do this, their proposals fail to persuade their audience and their ideas don’t get funded. To convince a workplace audience, you have to first realize that your audience cares about the needs oftheir own organization, division, or department.

People in the workplace tend to identify with their organizations and their job titles, according to author Paul Anderson in Technical Communication. That’s because their paychecks and promotions ride on how well they achieve an organization’s objectives. So to be persuasive in the workplace, you have to show how your idea will achieve an objective or fill a need for a company or client.

For example, suppose you’re an account executive for an advertising agency. You want to go back to school to earn your MBA, and you want your employer to pay part of the tab. But the agency doesn’t offer tuition reimbursement. So how can you convince the CEO of the advertising agency to pay for part of your MBA? How can you convince the CEO to create a policy to do this for all employees?

The key is showing how the policy will benefit the agency, as well as the employees.

When you first think of benefits of a tuition-reimbursement policy, you might come up with a list that looks like this:

Benefits of the tuition reimbursement policy for employees

  • Helps employees further their education
  • Gives employees additional skills to make them more marketable
  • Saves employees money

While these are valid benefits, they aren’t benefits to the ad agency. Your best argument should be based on how the proposed policy will benefit the ad agency, rather than how it will benefit you or other employees.

To get the CEO’s interest, you’d have to brainstorm a list of audience-centered benefits to support your proposed policy. To do this, it’s important to first identify some of the advertising agency’s objectives. Primarily, the agency exists to make money. It does that by providing effective advertising and tailored, responsive client service. To do this, the agency needs competent, qualified, knowledgeable employees. Tuition reimbursement would help attract and create qualified, knowledgeable employees.

Another of the agency’s objectives is curbing expenses. One big cost for most companies is hiring and training new employees. Since tuition reimbursement is a significant employee benefit, employees might be reluctant to leave the company and lose the benefit. This increased loyalty, therefore, could reduce employee turnover and, with it, the high costs of hiring and training. So with these corporate goals and objectives in mind, you can create a more audience-oriented list of benefits.

Benefits of tuition reimbursement policy for the ad agency

  • Helps ensure employee loyalty (employees will see tuition reimbursement as an attractive benefit they don’t want to lose)
  • Attracts qualified job candidates
  • Helps create more knowledgeable employees which, in turn, allows these employees to serve clients even more effectively
  • Demonstrates to the clients that the company is serious about customer service

The benefits on this list are more likely to persuade the ad agency than those on the first one.

Overcoming Objections

As people listen to your proposal, most will form objections or counter-arguments — questions about your logic or reasons not to believe you. (Anderson 103). To successfully persuade your audience, you need to anticipate your readers’ objections and then develop counter-arguments to overcome them.

To illustrate this, return to the tuition reimbursement example. What objections or counter-arguments might the advertising agency have to this policy?

Tuition Reimbursement Is an Expense
One objection might be that tuition reimbursement costs the company money.

A counter-argument is that tuition reimbursement helps reduce turnover by improving employee loyalty. So you could argue that the cost of tuition reimbursement is offset by what the company saves in hiring and training. Since your employer may not take this notion at face value, you should provide evidence that tuition reimbursement actually does reduce turnover. Credible evidence includes

  • studies on how tuition reimbursement has affected the turnover at other companies or
  • statements from current employees saying how much tuition reimbursement would increase their loyalty. You might be able to find both of these types of evidence in trade journals for advertising agencies or for human resource management.

Spending the Money Wisely
Another objection the employer might have is that employees could use tuition reimbursement to take courses unrelated to advertising. Employees might even take advantage of this policy to get a degree that launches them into another career.

One way to address this counter-argument would be to recommend that the tuition reimbursement be available for only courses related to the employee’s position within the advertising agency. For instance, the tuition reimbursement policy might approve payment for marketing courses but not horticulture courses.

These are only two possible objections the reader might have; there are probably more. Your job as a proposal writer is to try to identify and address the objections you anticipate the reader will have. You don’t need to address all the possible objections in your proposal, just those you think the will be most important to the reader. But identifying all the objections puts you in a good position should you ever have to present your position to your boss or client in a conference or meeting. You never know what questions will arise.


Anderson, Paul V. Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1999.

Using the Right TONE to Persuade
What impression do you get about the writers of each passage below?
Which writer would you trust to solve the problem?

  1. “The copier is constantly breaking down; it’s a tremendous problem that significantly impedes work in the office.”
  2. “In the last two weeks, the copier has broken down three times. Because of these breakdowns, we missed deadlines for two projects and had to pay overtime to the administrative staff so they could copy the reports after the copier was fixed.”

Most workplace readers would place more trust in the writer of passage #2, than passage #1. That’s because the writer of #2 sounds more objective and authoritative.

Whenever you write any document, you convey more than just information about your subject: you project an image of yourself, as well as your feelings about the subject and your reader. When you write a proposal, you want to project an image of yourself as competent and capable, a professional who can solve the problem. That’s part of what makes the tone you use so important in proposals. Because in a proposal, you’re doing more than asking the primary audience to choose your plan; you’re asking the audience to choose you (and/or your organization) to implement the plan. If your proposal has a problematic tone, it can wreak havoc on the primary audience’s perception of you.

When writing a proposal, it’s essential that you watch your tone, as it can speak volumes, whether or not you mean it to. The examples below show the difference tone can make.



Weak: “The speed of the proposed assembly line is phenomenal; I’ve never seen one so fast.”

Why: In professional contexts, the above sentence can sound like an overstatement (hyperbole). In addition, it doesn’t give the reader any data with which to gauge the speed.

Stronger: “The proposed assembly line creates 15 widgets per second; it is 3 times faster than our current line.”

Why: This sentence is stronger than the first one because it states the situation in more objective terms and gives the audience a point of comparison. In essence, the sentence gives more information about the topic and projects an image of the writer as being objective and analytical. These characteristics are valued in most workplaces.


Weak: “Currently, Westfield Investments uses archaic communication channels to deliver time-sensitive documents to clients.”

Why: The word “archaic” is a problem because it negatively characterizes the communication channels, which can lead your audiences to believe that you are too emotionally invested in the problem to view it objectively. Though emotions exist in the workplace (and frequently drive decisions), readers in business and industry are likely to question certain emotions. In this case, they may see the writer as being overly biased against the existing communication channels.

Stronger: “Currently Westfield Investments uses FAX and Federal Express to deliver time-sensitive documents to clients. These methods are slower than new technologies such as electronic document transfer.”

Why: Once again, this sentence gives more information about the situation than does the first one. In addition, it projects an image of the writer as being more neutral about the situation.


Weak:“I believe the return procedure should be changed so that when customers return clothing, they leave the store with more than abhorrence for the process.”

Why: Although this sentence is phrased in an interesting way, it negatively characterizes the situation. It’s important to remember that your audience may have been involved designing or implementing the very thing you want to change. In this case, your reader might have designed or approved the return policy or procedure. So you have to watch the tone of your proposal so that you don’t offend your audience.

Stronger: “I believe the return procedure should be changed so that when customers return clothing, they leave the store pleased with the process and looking forward to shopping here again.”

Why: This sentence emphasizes the positive and isn’t likely to offend the reader.


Weak: “The proposed plan will have a prodigiously profound effect on the problem.”

Why: Although there’s some interesting alliteration here, the word “prodigious” is likely to be unfamiliar to some in your audience; even “profound” could be a stumbling block.

When you write in the workplace, don’t try to impress your audience with vocabulary; instead, impress them with your clarity. Use precise AND easy-to-understand terms.

Stronger: “The proposed plan addresses the problem effectively.

Why: This revision is simple, direct, and easy for busy workplace readers to comprehend.

Use the RIGHT Terms for Your Audience

While it’s important to sound neutral, objective, and professional, it’s equally important to be sensitive to the expertise of your audience. Demonstrate that you understand the organization and the problem by the terms your audience uses.

For instance, if you’re writing to a group of CPAs, use accounting terms. Your audience will understand this language. Moreover, using it will mark you as someone your audience can trust to solve the problem. However, if you’re writing to a client who isn’t familiar with accounting terms, use ones a layperson can understand.

For more on tone in proposals, see the following article, “Does Style and Tone of Writing in Proposals Matter?” by Dan Safford of ProposalWorks:http://www.proposalworks.com/articles/mention.asp