Seven Proposal Lessons from A Christmas Story
Note: We published this article during the holidays a few years ago, but given the overwhelming response back then, we figured we'd bring it back for another run. No, it is not new content (though there will be plenty of that in the coming year!). And yes, it is sort of like re-gifting. But unlike that soon-to-be-wrapped bread maker that has been sitting unopened in your closet, this article may still be appreciated the second time around. Enjoy!
The holidays are upon us. It's time to shut down the smartphone, kick up your feet, grab some eggnog, and watch your favorite festive film. There are plenty of classics to choose from, but we chose A Christmas Story, the tale of a boy’s quest to show that the perfect gift is a bright, shiny Red Ryder B.B. gun.
But as we sat down for a fun-filled viewing, we couldn’t get our work—the big stack of proposals and marketing documents waiting in our office—out of our heads. So, in this post we’re discussing seven proposal lessons from A Christmas Story. Enjoy!
1. Never Rely on Your Size (On the Playground or in a Proposal) Remember Scut Farkus, the cocky, red-haired bully that picked on Ralphie and his friends? His attitude was simple: I’m bigger, so I win. How did that work out for him?
Unfortunately, we see the same attitude in lots of proposals, each leading with a dump of information about how big their firm is, how many employees and locations they have, and how many years they’ve been around. The problem is that, quite simply, prospects usually don’t care, and often this approach comes across as lazy or arrogant.
The Lesson: Size alone isn’t a strategy. Unless you want to get beaten up by a smaller, more passionate firm, explain how your size will benefit the prospect (e.g., allow for more efficient service at multiple locations). And if it won’t, focus on something that will.
2. See It from Their Side (When Selling Ovaltine or Your Professional Service) Remember when Ralphie receives his decoder ring in the mail and uses it to anxiously decipher Little Orphan Annie’s secret message—all for it to be an Ovaltine advertisement? What a letdown.
When a busy prospect sacrifices their time to sift through and evaluate your proposal—all for it to read like a list of platitudes and generic qualities and approaches—you might as well be selling Ovaltine. Prospects don’t like their time wasted with pages of empty descriptors. And imagine how hollow the promise of “customized, detail-oriented service” is when written in a document that barely mentions the prospect. Not good.
The Lesson: A good proposal is about the prospect, not you. So make the effort up front to understand their needs and challenges, then detail the key ways your service will address them.
3. Don’t Shoot Your Eye Out (on Christmas Morning or in a Kickoff Meeting) Remember how Ralphie hurries outside to try his new B.B. gun on Christmas morning, then nearly shoots his eye out? Yep, he should have listened to the warnings of his mother, teacher, and even Santa.
While we’re not Ralphie’s age, we often act like it when it comes to proposal planning and kickoff meetings. Despite knowing that they’re important, many proposal professionals hurry in and out of kickoff meetings (or never have them) in an effort to “get things going.” Regrettably, the byproduct is often a weak, inconsistent, and unpersuasive document—a proposal with its eye shot out.
The Lesson: Kickoff meetings are critical, so dedicate at least 15 to 20 percent of your total proposal time to planning for them. By your meeting’s conclusion, there should be, at minimum, a detailed proposal outline, internal proposal schedule, team commitment to meeting process expectations, and clear team understanding of your proposal’s value proposition and two to four key messages.
4. Don’t Stick Your Tongue to a Pole (Just because a Classmate or Executive Says to) Remember when Schwartz continually dares Flick to stick his tongue to the flag pole until Flick, feeling the peer pressure, finally does it? Bad idea.
Hopefully there are no triple-dog-dares at your workplace, but the pressure to do what a senior executive or subject matter expert wants on a proposal—no matter how ridiculous—can be awkward to handle. After all, even though they’re probably not your direct supervisor, they are often higher up the organization’s “food chain,” even if only by perception.
The Lesson: Just as they’re the experts in their field, you’re the expert in yours. So show your value. Politely stand your ground, citing research and best practices for why your approach is more beneficial to the proposal. If you want to be viewed as someone who does more than “make proposals pretty,” this is a good place to start.
5. Accept that You Sometimes Have to Wear a Pink Bunny Suit Remember when Ralphie’s mom makes him try on Aunt Clara’s Christmas gift, then he has to stand there while his little brother laughs and father calls him a “pink nightmare?” How embarrassing.
We’ve all felt like Ralphie in the workplace, torn between our pride and our end goal. And that’s okay. Because although it’s important to stand your ground and speak up for effective proposal practices, sometimes your energy is better spent on more important matters.
The Lesson: Know when to compromise. A proposal process can be quickly unhinged by a disgruntled senior executive or subject matter expert, so before you push an issue, think of the bigger picture. If the goodwill you’ll earn is better used for a key issue later in the process, maybe it is better to relent.
6. Always Watch Your Language (When Changing a Tire or Finalizing Content) Remember how Ralphie lets a curse word slip—in painfully slow motion—while helping his father change a flat tire? That one word got him a bar of soap in the mouth and nearly derailed his grand B.B. gun plan.
It’s amazing how much difference a word or two can make. Yet, we often see companies develop a grand proposal plan, then spend countless hours researching, strategizing, discussing, writing, and rewriting for their document—all for it to arrive at the prospect with inconsistent word use, misspellings, redundancies, contradictions, and even wrong prospect names. Oh fudge.
The Lesson: Always set aside time for a final edit of your proposal, and hold to the schedule. Self editing is fine in a pinch (we recommend using Adobe Acrobat’s Read Out Loud function for this), but a peer or outside edit is much more effective at catching potentially damaging mistakes.
7. Make the Best of It When Things Go Awry (with Your Turkey or Proposal) Remember when Ralphie’s mother spends all day preparing a delicious turkey for Christmas dinner, then the neighbor’s pack of hounds invade the kitchen and make off with the bird?
Just like with holiday meals, no matter how well you plan, proposal disasters occasionally will happen. We’ve all been there. But fortunately, there’s almost always something that can be done, whether it’s pulling an all-nighter, sprinting to a FedEx drop box, or rallying coworkers behind you.
The Lesson: Stop, take stock, adjust course, and move on. This behavior is one of the biggest keys to being a successful in proposals—and most things, come to think of it.
Happy Holidays! Best wishes from all of us at Freestyle Editorial for a happy, healthy holiday season free of stolen turkeys, stuck tongues, and last-minute proposal requests.
Shameless Plug Alert: A great way to ensure you have clear, persuasive proposals and presentations is by hiring a professional writer, editor, or trainer. You know, like the ones at Freestyle Editorial Services. Explore our website and contact us today to discuss how we can make your company stand apart from the competition.