Like most Associate Professors, Dr. Daniel Berleant has to apply for funding
to support his research and graduate students. So he writes proposals.
Naturally he wins some and he loses some. Being a scientist, after all,
he wondered whether there were factors beyond the content of the proposals
that affected the chances of success. So he did a study, which was published
in the Communications of the ACM, a leading professional journal.
conclusion is that simple choices in formatting and organization do make
a difference in the chances of success of a proposal. Proposals from university
researchers are made to government funding agencies, philanthropic organizations,
and R&D units of large corporations. Thus it is possible that his conclusions
will not hold for proposals made by vendors in competitive sales situations.
However, we'd be surprised if some of these results don't carry over.
seeking funding or a contract, the writer of a proposal is attempting
to communicate ideas to the reader, and most readers are pretty much the
same. For example, a study that was reported more than two decades ago
showed that readers of technical manuals preferred writing at a 5th grade
level, regardless of whether they were administrative assistants with
high school diplomas or scientists with Ph.D.s. So we'd advise vendors
to look closely at these results, which we summarize in the next section.
If you're unsure, you could do your own internal study. Or, why not contribute
some funding to help Professor Berleant move his results into the commercial
arena? Couldn't hurt.
Professor Berleant looked at the formatting and organizational parameters
of 30 proposals to one funding agency. The proposals had been rated by
the funding agency as "Highly Competitive," "Competitive," and "Not Competitive."
Table 1 shows the ratings received by the thirty proposals based on the
font sizes used for the body of the text.
1 Competitiveness vs. Font Size
1 shows these data in a possibly more useful different form. The orange
line shows the probability of a proposal receiving a Highly Competitive
rating given the font size used; the blue line shows the probability of
receiving a rating of Competitive or better. With due allowance for the
small sample size it does appear safe to suggest that a proposal in 10
or 11 point text has a much better chance of success than one in a larger
or smaller size. (Please note that the next section will discuss the degree
to which results like these can or should be understood as offering causal
1. Likelyhood of Sucess For Different Font Sizes
Berleant also looked at the use of sans-serif sub headings when the proposal
itself is in a serif font. Those results show that the probability of
a proposal being Highly Competitive is more than twice as high if sans
serif headings are used than if the headings do have serifs. The sample
here had only 16 data points, since all of the other proposals were entirely
in sans serif font. Note that of the 16 proposals in which a serif font
was used for the text body, none were found to be Not Competitive. On
the other hand, twelve of the remaining 14 proposals, all written in sans
serif font throughout were determined to be Non Competitive. If you are
about to send out a proposal written in Ariel or Courier throughout, TEC
strongly recommends that you try Times Roman instead.
study also looked at subsection numbering, somewhat more common in academic
than commercial proposals. The question was whether the numbering of subsections
in the main part of the proposal should be relative to that section or
whether they should reflect their position within the larger document.
That is, if the narrative is section 3 of the proposal, should its sections
be numbered as 1, 2, or 3.1, 3.2? The conclusion is quite clear that
the former, simpler scheme is the one that pays the rent.
The study also looked at the organization of the content. Should there
be a conclusion section? Although the guidelines did not call for a conclusion,
Figure 2 shows that the proposals with conclusions scored much better
than those that didn't.
2. Probability of Success Given Presence or Absence of Conclusion
all proposals were required to have summaries, authors took different
approaches to whether the summary section was reused, in whole or in part,
in the main narrative sections. Proposals rated Highly Competitive tended
not to do this. However when those rated either Highly Competitive or
Competitive are examined the better strategy seems to be that some reuse
of the summary can be helpful; see Figure 3.
3. Probability of Success Given Reuse of Summary
submission: The more competitive proposals were the ones that tended
to be submitted early, as Figure 4 demonstrates. This is consistent with
what your mother told you.
4. Probability of Success Given Submission Date
What is most interesting is not the specific results as the fact that
there were definite identifiable success factors. Some may seem obvious
to anyone who has had to read a number of proposals in a short period
of time, others like the strong preference for contrasting headings, are
less so. Overall, the clear conclusion is that the form of a proposal
has a relationship to its likelihood of success.
that there is a relationship does not tell us what that relationship was.
That is, we can't tell whether it was the use of contrasting headings
that made a difference or just that the people who were successful tended
to be the ones who used contrasting headings. Were early submissions more
successful because the early submission impressed the judge, because the
judge had more time to read it, because people who get their proposals
in are the ones who write better proposals, or because the later submissions
had a last-minute look to them?
of whether the features studied were the causes of the success (or failure)
of proposals or whether they are diagnostic indicators of other factors
that weren't directly studied, both academic proposal writers and vendors
have a bottom-line stake in learning more.