New business proposals can be one of the most difficult challenges in public relations writing. Not only can they involve synthesizing complex communications strategies and brainstorming knock-‘em-dead ideas under short timelines, they also can involve multiple colleagues with diverse writing styles influenced by different education and experience as well as age and geography.
In my role as editor, I’m often asked to proof proposals, and I frequently come across the same grammar and style inconsistencies and errors that reflect the special challenges of new business situations. Below I’ve listed five of the most common problems that I see.
Mistakes in new business materials can be embarrassing and detrimental to business — especially from people whose profession is writing and communicating. PR pros should always take care to get as many details right as they can.
How many of these do you come across in your new business efforts?
1. Would you or will you?
When describing a proposed course of action, you can use the conditional verb tense (would) or the future tense (will): Our team will start by developing an influencer program to identify the leading players in this space who can best disseminate Company XYZ’s message. The conditional tense is less assuming while the future tense expresses stronger intent, but either is OK. However, it’s easy to inadvertently jump back and forth between these two tenses and create a sloppy-reading document. Remember to keep this verb choice consistent.
2. Mr., Ms., Last Name or First Name?
When summing up the talents of your team in a bio section, it’s easy to alternate from a formal style (Mr. Neil McCauley) to a casual one (Neil) to one in between (McCauley), depending on how a bio was originally written or what style seems most appropriate. Although the use of the first name tends to be more common nowadays, be sure to choose one style and stick with it in all the bios.
3. A Company Is Only One
When including case studies in a proposal, a common pitfall in describing past work is to refer to a corporation with a plural pronoun: When Company XYZ launched the program, they needed a way to raise awareness. This reflects the informal conversational style of referring to a person or company in a plural form. In formal writing, however, remember a corporation is a singular entity and should always be referred to with the singular pronoun “it.”
4. Parallel Structure
Proposals are usually chock full of lists, so remember the most common error with lists is a lack of parallel structure. If the first bulleted item is a noun, the rest of the items should be nouns. If the first bulleted item is a complete sentence, the rest of the items should be as well. Each item should flow from and be consistent with the introductory sentence.
The senior vice president has five key responsibilities:
- Providing strategic PR counsel and flawless team execution,
- Landing new business and growing current accounts,
- Managing billable hours and client budgets,
- Coordinating staff training and career development, and
- Contributing to the development of agency best practices.
5. One or two?
Finally, this may seem nitpicking, but inconsistent spacing following the end of a sentence does make a difference. For the record, correct spacing after a punctuation mark ending a sentence is one space – not two. With the large number of people contributing to proposals, it’s likely that this inconsistency will crop up. Try to enforce the one-space rule. To be sure, this is a minor style issue, but it’s the same as if black text were used in part of a proposal and gray text in another. It’s small but noticeable. And any inconsistency you can eliminate will make the final product better.