5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Business Proposals (or Any Pitch for That Matter)

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Laptop: Common Mistakes When Writing Business Proposals

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I often receive business proposals and pitches for PE.

Many of them end up in the “Archive” folder. Only a handful gets my attention, and for those that do, it’s usually due to (a) a match in business needs and (b) good pitching skills.

Today, I want to share five common mistakes to avoid when writing business proposals, or any pitch for that matter. While my recommendations are subjective, they are based on my experience receiving AND writing collaboration proposals and pitches for the past years of running my business. Take whatever advice you think is relevant to you.

Each mistake comes with recommendations to fix it. I’ve also included screen captures of good/bad pitches that people have sent to me before to illustrate my points.

If your mail happens to be featured here as a bad case study, please take it as constructive feedback. Apply the lessons to your next pitch and who knows? You might land more gigs, sooner than you think.

Knock yourself out. 😀 And please share this article if you find it useful and want more of such stuff in the future. Thanks — your support keeps me going. 🙂

Mistake #1: Failing to get to the point (within the first few seconds)

I have lost count of email that goes, “Firstly, I want to tell you…” which stretches on for one full paragraph and has absolutely nothing to do with the sender’s reason for writing the mail.

It is usually followed by a two to three paragraph spiel about how excited the sender is about the idea he/she is going to present to me (or how exciting said idea is), but still doesn’t say anything about the idea.

What follows are five to six paragraphs of text, where the person finally gets to why he/she is writing. By then, my interest has already waned and I’m almost ready to hit the “Archive” button.

When you write your pitch, you want to get right to the point. It’s okay to open up with a simple “Hi X, I hope you are doing great!” or “First off, I just want to let you know I love your work!”; it’s not okay to ramble on and on and go completely off tangent. By then you would have lost your prospect’s attention and your mail is probably in the trash.

Leave social talk for social mail. Don’t beat about the bush. When it comes to a business email/proposal/pitch, you are expected to be sharp and to cut right to the chase.

Here’s an example of a well-written invite I just received this month:


Pitch for Speaking Engagement

Pitch for a speaking engagement by a conference organizer

Notice how the sender cut right to the chase at the onset. Within the first three paragraphs, I have already learned: (a) Who the sender is and what she does, (b) why she is writing to me, (c) what she would like me to do. While the mail went on for another five paragraphs, it’s fine as those are supplementary information about the event. This is information which I want to read, since she has successfully stirred my interest.

My next steps were then to (a) check my availability, and (b) decide if I want to take the offer up or not. (Which I eventually did!)

On the other hand, here is an example of a bad email which went on and on and failed to get my attention:

Subject: Are you ready for 2013?

Joint Venture Pitch - Fail

Pitch for a joint venture. Big fail unfortunately.

One subject line and three paragraphs into the mail, and I still have no idea what this mail is about. Sure, the first paragraph mentioned a joint venture campaign. But about what? What exactly do you want me to do in it? And what do I stand to gain? All this information should be presented up front within the first few paragraphs, ideally the first two. This pitch falls short of that unfortunately.

If anything, this mail reads more like promotional drivel to the end consumer (whom you want to sell your product to) than a collaboration pitch to a prospective partner. (Notice the subject reads the same way too. If I was writing this joint venture proposal, I’d have titled it as: “Invitation for Joint Venture Collaboration on XX Campaign” or “XX Campaign JV Collaboration”, and not “Are you ready for 2013?”)

My guess is that the person simply copied and pasted the sales copy from her product sales page. This was confirmed when I scrolled down and found over 30 paragraphs of text, most of which were not relevant to me as a potential collaborator but probably to someone who was considering buying the product.

Straight to “Archive” it was.

Mistake #2: Failing the “Sesame Street” test

Back when I was in P&G, there was this GM who would preach the “Sesame Street” way of writing. Basically, if your reports and email can’t be understood by someone who watches “Sesame Street” (e.g., a first grader), you fail the test and you should rewrite them until they are simple enough to be understood.

Why? Because:

  1. People are busy—especially those in senior management positions. They do not have time to read between the lines and decipher what you are trying to say.
  2. People have no time to think. These same people are so busy wrapping their brains around high-level business issues and decisions that they have little capacity for email and reports which have little bearing on their agenda. If you make them think even for a second, that’s one second of their time wasted.
  3. People are stupid. And I don’t mean this in a condescending way — it applies to me as well. My brain power descends to its lowest denominator when reading mail. I lose my ability to think. If the mail as much as juggles my cerebral cortex by way of heavy jargon and convoluted language, it’s out of the window.

To pass the “Sesame Street” test, your pitch should satisfy the following:

  1. Be short and simple. No need for drivel. Refer to the first tip on getting to the point.
  2. Use simple words and sentences. Keep to simple English. No need for big words and flowery language. Win your prospect over with the power of your ideas, not your mad language skillz.
  3. Can be easily understood without much thought. If the person needs to read and re-read your message to get your point, you have failed the test. You should convey your idea so clearly that it can be understood at first glance.

Mistake #3: Not customizing your message (to match your audience)

I wouldn’t call this a mistake per se, since it’s not necessary to customize your message to land a collaboration. I have responded to generically addressed pitches before because I was interested in the ideas presented.

However, customizing and personalizing your message definitely helps increase acceptance. Take for example this email which I received from Paul of Thox, a PR agency, a few months ago:

Customized message for a PR Pitch

Pitch from Thox

Paul was right—I generally do not wish to receive product/service pitches. In fact, I am so adamant about it in the past that I specify it as one of the things I don’t want to receive emails on in my contact page.

However, because Paul had written such a pleasant opening message which clearly showed an understanding of my blog, I was keen to hear him out, even if it was indeed a PR pitch for something.

As it turned out, he was pitching an event which was not relevant to PE since it was lifestyle-related. However, I was still keen to work with him.

“What other accounts/campaigns are you working on? Do you have any which can be tied to personal development and the messages that PE embodies? Perhaps we can explore collaboration on those fronts instead,” I probed.

Guess what—it turned out that Paul DID have a client that matched PE’s profile. It was the National Cancer Center of Singapore, and I eventually did a feature for them by way of my interview with cancer survivors.

I’d say the more individualistic your audience is, the more important it is to have a customized and personalized message. Pitches to bloggers, online personalities, small business owners, boutique brands, etc. would benefit from a personalized message. Of course, it also helps if you have a large presence, strong value proposition, and relevant angle in your pitch.

Mistake #4: Not using spell check (i.e. Having grammatical mistakes)

If your pitch is laden with grammatical errors, it doesn’t put you in a good light. It basically shows that you either have a bad command of English or can’t be bothered to check for errors before sending. I’m not sure which is worse.

A pitch with language mistakes all over

A pitch with language mistakes speckled throughout the email (highlighted in yellow)

I genuinely think that the person who wrote the mail is a very nice guy and has a good heart, but he made it extremely difficult for me to read the mail because of the callousness to proper punctuation and spelling. I don’t really concern myself with language errors in personal communication, but it’s a different thing altogether in business proposals/communication.

It really also didn’t help that while he acknowledged that I’m probably busy, he went ahead and sent me a long email anyway (over 2,200 words) — with said mistakes scattered throughout. I tried to give it a read, but had to give up after a few seconds because it was just too painful to get through. I also could not decipher the gist of the proposal despite scanning the mail several times.

(zm, if you are reading this, I hope you don’t take offence at what I have written but instead take it as constructive criticism on your proposal. I was unable to give it due attention for the above reasons and eventually had it archived. Perhaps if you could rework the proposal based on the five points in this article, I could give it the due attention it deserves.)

When writing your pitches, use spell check. Make sure there are no grammar mistakes. Start your sentences with a capital letter and end them with full stops, not ellipsis. Use formal English, not chat speak (e.g., ur, gtg, thx). Be your own grammar nazi.

Mistake #5: Not giving enough details

As much as it is a bane to flood your recipient with information, it is also equally bad to provide inadequate information. Check this one out:

Pitch with not enough details - Fail

A pitch with insufficient information

I couldn’t figure out if the person was trying to make a pitch or pitching for a pitch. Why would you send an email with barely any information, then ask for permission to send details? Why not just send everything in that one mail?

Since I didn’t know what this pitch entailed nor what the company was about, I didn’t respond. I had too many things to do, than to respond to a pitch I was not sold on to begin with. This mail went straight to “Archive”.

Then, three months later…

Pitch with not enough details, #2 - Fail

Why would someone bother to follow up after three months but NOT include the additional information he/she clearly wants the recipient to read? It’s like putting a poster on Clear Channel asking people to call if they are interested to know more about your product/service, rather than using that space to directly promote your product/service. Who is going to call? Very few, if any!

This went straight to “Archive” again, sadly.

On the other hand, check out this example from Justin of Evolve Media:

Pitch with details, #1

Here, Justin jumped straight into introducing himself and his objective of mailing me. (See tip #1 about getting to the point.) He then introduced his company and what they do.

He then proceeded to share what he would like to collaborate with me/PE on.

His mail was 331 words long. It was neither short nor long. The important thing was that it contained information on whether I should collaborate with Evolve Media or not.

At the end of his mail, Justin attached a PowerPoint deck which had more details, should I be interested to know more.

Pitch with details, attachment

And guess what. I did open the deck (11 slides with strong statistics and convincing details) and scanned through the contents. Why? Because (a) Justin bothered to attach it, (b) his opening pitch was sharp and enticing enough for me to want to read more.

In the end, what I saw was interesting enough for me to take up his offer.

Pitch with details - My Response

Bingo. Justin responded promptly, and we worked out something thereafter.

Conversely, if Justin had NOT attached the PowerPoint deck, and had only written a few-liner mail asking me if I wanted to know more about Evolve, I wouldn’t have responded.

Why should I? I had no idea what Evolve was about or who Justin was. There was no hook, no reason for me to follow up. It would have been much easier for me to archive the mail than to respond asking for more information on something I was NOT even interested to begin with, when it should be the person’s job to excite the recipient and provide him/her with whatever information is necessary to make the collaboration decision.

The point here isn’t about length. Allison’s email was way short (43 words) and I ignored it. zm’s email (2,232 words) was way long and I ignored it too.

The point here is that (a) you should include sufficient information for the person to make a decision on the collaboration, and (b) you should include the most enticing information that would excite him/her enough to jump on your bandwagon. Everything else is unnecessary.

Final Words

Hope you guys have found my case study examples and tips useful!

Do you make any of the five mistakes in your business proposals or pitches? Why? How can you work on those problem areas and deliver a sharper, stronger pitch the next round?

Be sure to check out my related article (which has been very popular among business owners and bloggers): How to Get Media Coverage for Your Business, Blog, or Startup — Constantly (Secrets Behind My Frequent Media Coverage, Revealed)

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