Bob Lohfeld

COMMENTARY

100 words that kill your proposal

Inexperienced proposal writers seem to use words that should be avoided when writing proposals. These inappropriate words and phrases can weaken a proposal, annoy evaluators, and even undermine the bidder’s credibility.

To help you write better proposals, we have compiled a list of the most frequently used words that should be avoided when writing proposals. Some of these came from Carl Dickon at CapturePlanning.com while others came from lists that have circulated around the proposal industry for so long that the identity of the original authors has been lost.

Our list doesn’t cover every word that should be avoided, and there are certainly exceptions to the usage rules, but our list does provide guidance and suggests alternative words that will strengthen your proposal. The full list (actually about 200 words) is available on our website.

Here’s a brief discussion of the kinds of words you should avoid.

Crutch words

When writers don’t know what to say, they often use crutch words to make the reader think they know what they are writing about. For example, when a proposal writer says, “We understand your requirements,” then fails to demonstrate any understanding, the writer is using the word understand as a crutch.

The proposal would be much stronger if the writer demonstrated an understanding of the requirements by discussing how features of their proposal fulfill customer requirements. Avoid using the word understand in your proposal. It will most certainly be a crutch that replaces what should be a discussion of your understanding.

Boasting Words

Boasting words cause a proposal to lose credibility and undermine the integrity of the bidder. I know every 10-person company feels compelled to say they are world class, uniquely qualified, use best-of-breed tools, have industry-standard processes, have state-of-the-art technology, and are thought leaders in their market.

I can assure you no proposal evaluator has ever based an award decision on this kind of puffery. Remove boasting words from your proposal, and focus your proposal on what you are going to do for the customer, instead of trying to make your firm sound so important. Interestingly, the bigger and more successful companies are, the more humble they seem to be about their credentials.

Vague, useless words

No proposal evaluator has ever been moved by a proposal that said we are pleased to submit this proposal, enthusiastic about performing this work, committed to top quality, or we place our customers first. These are just useless words in a proposal. You will do better if you strip these from your proposal, and write about what matters—which is how you are going to do the work.

Weak, timid words

We believe, think, feel, strive, attempt, intend, etc. are all words that contemplate failure to perform as an acceptable outcome. Say what you intend to do, and don’t couch it in timid terms.

Redundant words

In page-limited proposals, concise writing is mandatory. Let’s make it a practice to replace redundant words with precise words. For example, replace actual experience with experience, advanced planning with planning, close proximity with proximity, consensus of opinion with consensus, and so on.

Unnecessary Qualifiers

We are absolutely certain, it goes without saying, now and again, comparatively, thoroughly, needless to say, etc. are unnecessary qualifiers. While these words and many similar words may have a place in proposals, most writers use them as unnecessary qualifiers. Remove them to make your writing more concise.

Needlessly long words

Normally, you wouldn’t use unnecessarily long words in conversation, so there’s no need to use them in a proposal. Replace ascertain with learn, encompass with include, enumerate with list, illustrate with show, initiate with start, and so on.

Slang

We are hitting the ground running and rolling out the red carpet with seasoned managers... You might say this in conversation and it would be fine, but in a proposal, it just sounds odd. Proposals are more formal and may even end up being part of the contract, so write without using slang.

If I’ve missed some of your favorite words to avoid, let me know and I’ll add them to the long list on our website.

Reader Comments

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 Reuben Austin

Great tips. Most proposals are full of garbage that distracts from the intended mission, instead of contributing to it. Going through proposals with a (virtual?) red pen and just removing the junk is often the fastest way to create improve proposals, and highlight where sales reps need to ask more questions.

Fri, Oct 26, 2012 Dave Rodriguez St Louis

to add to Mike Howard's comment on "try"--there is no try, there is only do or not do

Mon, Aug 20, 2012 Susan Trivers

Will anyone disagree with this list? Probably not, yet when faced with a proposal or slides written without these words or phrases, reviewers (who aren't writers) often want to add them. We need more decision-makers to support straightforward writing. Until then, proposal teams will be criticized for writing as Lohfield recommends.

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 Michael Howard Indianapolis

Don't us the word "try". There are no consequences. " We will try to meet your expectations" means we may not and if we don't, well no big deal." It also shows a lack of self confidence so let's try not to use the word "try." Woops.

Wed, Jul 25, 2012 Randy Tuminello

The focus on words to avoid is a very interesting idea. Obviously true in many repects. The only problem is that focusing on words to avoid is like thinking too much about a golf swing. When you do, you usually miss the ball. It's hard to incorporate the wrong words when you've earned the right to compete by learning the hot-buttons, risks and client needs before the proposal. That more than anything helps you to avoid using fluff, cover ups etc. In looking back over my experience, I defaulted to these mistakes when I was proposing for the sake of a proposal versus really competing. All in all--still a good article and thoughts to consider. Thanks.

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