How to format a proposal

In today’s climate of information overload, getting your message through to your reader is a challenge. Which is why your proposal format matters more than ever.

Proposals, and especially RFP responses, are sales documents that are intended to move the customer towards a decision in your favor. You need to use every available technique to ensure your proposal is read and understood, so that the document achieves its mission. Truly, finding the right proposal format is an underappreciated art.

Accordingly, this post does not focus on actual proposal writing techniques. But, it does cover proposal writing formatting, which can significantly contribute to the impact your document makes. Here are some key proposal format techniques you should consider to gain the upper hand over your competitors, win over your reader…and capture more business as a result.

People don’t actually read proposal documents

In 2005, I commissioned a research study with a grad student from the University of Portsmouth in the UK to research and validate proposal document formatting techniques. The goal of the study was to find out what formatting techniques worked and which didn’t when people read and evaluated documents.

One main outcome of the research proved this: People don’t actually read documents in detail…they tend to skim them. So the key points must quite literally catch their eyes as they fly past.

When you realize that skimming is how people will consume your content, you will understand why following these proposal formatting do’s and don’ts can make a big difference.

14 proposal format do’s

Let’s get into some of the do’s of proposal document formatting, so you can make your messaging easier to grasp.

1. DO use serif fonts for paper-based communication.

While you may favor other font styles, consider switching to serif fonts which have been tested and proven as the easiest to read.

2. DO use sans-serif fonts for online communication.

The winner for on-screen readability, sans serif fonts are the best choice for digital content.

3. DO use a double-space between sentences.

Double-spacing makes your proposal document much easier to skim.

4. DO insert paragraphs every 3-5 sentences.

Always break up monolithic blocks of text, since lengthy paragraphs can overwhelm your reader.

5. DO use graphics/images with discretion.

Too many graphics or images make proposal documents look like picture books, and divert emphasis from the text. If you do use images, make sure they have relevance.

6. DO use graphical timelines to illustrate processes.

To bring your process to life within a proposal document, a graphical timeline can really help. Rather than talking about an implementation flow, show it instead.

7. DO use plenty of clear headings.

Use headings and subheadings in fonts of different sizes and colors to demarcate text and paragraphs.

8. DO use a clear table of contents.

A table of contents permits the user to understand the structure of the document and quickly locate the information they need.

9. DO use the client’s name in a 3:1 ratio.

Your client wants to feel that the proposal document is about them, written for them, and focused on their situation. Overuse of your company’s name makes the document appear self-centric. Especially in the RFP executive summary, use the client’s name in a 3:1 ratio vs. your organization’s name.

10. DO learn how to use punctuation correctly.

If you aren’t the best at punctuation, find a reviewer that has a good grasp of grammar rules—especially commas and semicolons. When so used, they serve to insert “mini-pauses” in the document, increasing readability and reading velocity.

11. DO consider using a one-third/two-thirds layout.

Compelling testimonials and key metrics deserve the spotlight. Use a one-third margin layout for important text call-outs (aka “vignettes”) to draw the reader in.

12. DO use consistent proposal formatting.

Many documents, especially those with multiple contributors like RFPs (request for proposals) and SOWs (statements of work), can suffer from abrupt font size or style changes. This is known as the “patchwork quilt” effect, and it does not give a favorable impression.

13. DO use your client’s logo.

Using your client’s logo in headers and footers is a great way to leverage design elements for personalization. A word of caution…use your client’s logo:

  • Only if you have permission to do so.
  • Only if you have ensured you are using the client’s current logo, in accordance with their corporate branding standards.
  • Only if you can have a crisp, non-pixelated high-resolution version.

14. DO use plenty of white space.

A dense, information-packed proposal format can put off your reader. When in doubt, space your content out.


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12 proposal format don’ts

Now it’s time to explore the don’ts of proposal document formatting. Break these bad habits and you’ll increase the effectiveness of future proposals.

1. DON’T use fully-justified text.

Use justified left, ragged right. Irregular spacing between words slows down reading speed. This isn’t a novel—it’s a skimmable document.

2. DON’T use landscape orientation for text.

The human eye has to sweep too far, again, slowing down reading speed and reducing comprehension.

3. DON’T over-fancify the presentation.

Think very hard about using PowerPoint as a vehicle for written proposals or RFP responses. (This is prolific in consulting and creative agencies). Your stunning document may inadvertently make the evaluator’s job harder.

4. DON’T use twin or multiple columns.

Leave multiple columns to the NY Times. The eye has to perform too many sweeps, resulting in fatigue and loss of concentration.

5. DON’T write long sentences.

Comprehension of text rapidly decreases after 17-20 words, requiring your reader to re-read sentences to understand them. More often than not, they don’t bother to re-read and the information is not fully conveyed.

6. DON’T overuse bullet points.

This is a big one. The ideal number of rows in a bulleted list is three, with a maximum of five on any one page. When you get up to ten or more bullet points, the content tends to be scanned and skipped.

Your reader’s brain considers the list to be unimportant and moves on—exactly the reverse of the intended behavior!

7. DON’T overuse bold, underlining, and italics.

As with bullet points, font altering should happen sparingly to attract the reader’s eye to essential points. When font styles are overused, the reader’s brain dismisses them.

8. DON’T use intermingled red and green text.

In consideration of readers that may have color blindness, avoid getting creative with red and green text. Approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world are color blind, so it’s more common than you think.

9. DON’T use acronyms without defining them.

You may define an acronym early in the document, and consider that to be sufficient. But people often don’t read the whole document. To be safe, define the acronym during the first instance on every page where the acronym is used.

10. DON’T use hyperlinks in paper-based documents.

While hyperlinks can be effective within electronic proposal documents, links spelled out in paper documents only adds to user workload and removes immediacy of information transfer.

11. DON’T use internal references in documents too frequently.

This is where you say “See answer to question #5” when the user is on question #312. Using this technique may seem easier for you when you’re responding to hundreds of RFP questions, but you’re only increasing your reader’s workload and reducing the speed of evaluation.

12. DON’T use low-contrast font colors.

Light grey is the perfect “what not to use” example with fonts. Low-contrast font colors are harder to process, especially for older readers. Also, these fonts do not print or copy well.

When you format for a proposal, remember the goal—the proposal is intended for your prospect, not you. Make your reader’s job as easy as possible by using document formatting techniques that create a skimmable—and pleasant—reading experience.
When you execute well, your reader will pause and hear what you have to say. Then you’re that much closer to gaining the competitive edge you need to win new business.

Formatting any type of business query is easier with our response management platform. Schedule a demo to get started with RFPIO.

Keith Norrie

Keith Norrie is a Senior Director of Sales at RFPIO. He has over 25 years’ experience in consultative sales, operations and product management, and has been assisting organizations with optimizing their proposal and RFP response processes since 2002. Connect with Keith on LinkedIn.

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