The One-Page Proposal: How To Get Your Business Pitch Onto One Persuasive Page
by Patrick G. Riley
Do you have an idea or initiative that you want to get out into the world? A one-page proposal can be a great way to develop and communicate the concept quickly and effectively to potential allies and supporters.
The One-Page Proposal can help ensure that your one-pager hits the mark. Written by longtime entrepreneur Patrick Riley, the book covers the structure of a successful one-page proposal and its development process. It also includes many examples.
This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: e-book | Print
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.
A one-page proposal is a single-page document that:
- Clearly and concisely explains the relevant aspects of a project.
- Proposes a course of action.
- Develops a persuasive argument for approval or engagement.
It’s designed to engage, persuade, and ask for a response. Written with a particular reader in mind, it’s intended to initiate action and garner the support needed to get things started.
It provides the reader with all the information they need to decide. It’s not an abridged version or “executive summary” of a longer document; it’s a complete document that can stand independently.
It’s a communications tool and a disciplined approach to developing an idea and an offer. Compressing your pitch into one page will lead to a more concise presentation, a more refined message, and a more robust pitch. Writing a one-page proposal can help you clarify your objective, identify potential obstacles, refine your thinking, and, all around, develop a deeper, more thorough understanding of your project.
Why one-page? Most times, anything over one page is too much information for the reader. An excessive amount of information may delay rather than speed up a decision. Or worse, it could lead to TL;DR (Internet speak for “too long; did not read”).
It’s not a shortcut. You still need to gather, evaluate, prioritize, and master your information before effectively condensing it into a one-page format.
It doesn’t entirely replace the traditional business plan. Business plans fulfill a particular function, which may be needed later when interest in the initiative develops. But business plans aren’t the best document to introduce an idea and propose an initial course of action to an audience you’re trying to enroll as supporters or investors.
It also doesn’t replace extended proposals in situations with prescribed proposal processes. For example, government and foundation grants typically have stringent proposal guidelines to which you should adhere.
Riley proposes the following format and structure, which he says “follows a logical and organic progression of thought and argument:”
TITLE: Like a newspaper headline, it should be short, descriptive, intriguing, and not cute or clever. Keep it to one line; a second line detracts. And it’s rarely a complete sentence. Think of it as a label or handle for your proposal.
SUBTITLE: Builds on the title, adding a second level of information that clarifies the proposal’s subject in an engaging way and two lines or fewer. It further defines the proposal’s topic, gives it dimension, and arouses the reader’s interest, inviting them to read further. It doesn’t need to be a complete sentence and can be more expressive than the title. Think of it as an opening line in the case you are making, so it’s an integral part of the sequence and not a throwaway, nor should it be treated as an afterthought.
GOAL: Describe your proposal’s purpose and what you expect to accomplish. Typically, it outlines a single or overarching goal. Begin with the word “To.” [Riley refers to this section as “target.”]
OBJECTIVES: Clarify and support your goal. Your Initiative may have many but limit it to the most important six or fewer. Set them off as bullet points to draw attention and add emphasis. Make them short and snappy. [Riley refers to this section as “secondary targets.”]
RATIONALE: Provide the who, what, where, why, and how. This section is two or three paragraphs that make your pitch using an “argument” framework. Riley proposes a three-part structure: “Setting the Stage” (relevant background), “Compelling Points” (persuasive facts), and “The Pitch” (how the benefits outlined in the goal and objectives sections will be realized). This section should be about 150 words.
FINANCIALS: Outlines how the Initiative will spend, save, or make money. This section should show your knowledge of the financial aspect of your initiative and your responsibility for money. Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes is the best way to accomplish this. If there isn’t a monetary component to the project, explain that.
STATUS: Where the Initiative stands. Outline what elements are in place and those that are still outstanding. This gives the reader a current picture and can help pave the way by demonstrating early successes, mounting interest, etc. This is the wind-up before the pitch, which comes next.
ACTION: How the reader can help further the Initiative. Make your “ask” clear, precise, and within the specific reader’s capabilities. (This underscores the importance of research and tailoring the proposal to a specific reader or group of readers.)
SIGNATURE and DATE: A signature shows your commitment and conviction. The date shows that the information is up to date.
The sequence is important. The flow of sections is organized to lead the reader from zero knowledge to complete understanding and interest.
What you know already will determine how you prepare to write your one-page proposal. Inventory what you know and what you have, determine what information is lacking, and then use research to fill in the gaps. If you’re an expert on the topic and working with territory you’re already familiar with, the document may come together quickly.
How and what you say will be influenced by the recipient. For an effective proposal, research your recipient and tailor it to their interests and style.
Here are the proposal development process steps Riley suggests:
Step 1: Organize. Before you write, gather and organize what you have on this topic–notes about your thinking, results of prior research–anything you have on the subject. Just about anything is fair game at this point. Narrowing your collection comes later. Organize what you have according to the proposal sections outlined above.
Step 2: Take stock. Focus on one section at a time, take in the content, make a few cuts, and then move on. Don’t randomly hop through the sections, as it will cause confusion and make it more difficult to master each section wholly and quickly.
The thickest bundle of material will go into the folders between “Goals” and “Status.” Don’t worry about the volume of material in those sections at this point. Having everything organized is all that’s needed.
“Title,” “subtitle,” and “action” aren’t research-based sections. Keep some (physical or virtual) paper nearby as you work to jot down potential titles, subtitles, and action sentences, and drop those in the appropriate folders.
Step 3: Prioritize. Make another pass through your folders, arranging your material in each folder from the most important to the least important. You’re creating a sequence of thoughts, which should lead to a logical sequence as you write. Organized this way, you may find it easier to get rid of unimportant items. Get rid of them, but be careful to keep any valuable nuggets.
Step 4: Start writing. You’re now ready to transform your research materials from a stack of prioritized papers into a starter document. Beginning with the “goal” folder (skip the “title” and “subtitle” folders for now), write one sentence for each notable piece of information residing in each folder.
Don’t worry about style or redundancies. Just write a simple sentence summarizing the informational points within your folders. The completed document may look rough, but you will have a list of sentences that flows logically if you’ve prioritized your material well. It’s all about getting words down.
Next, assemble these sentences into paragraphs. The result summarizes your research and notes about goals, objectives, rationale, and financials. This “pre-proposal” document may cover several pages, but that’s okay.
Step 5: Take a break and reflect. At this pre-proposal stage, before heading into the home stretch of crafting the proposal, now would be a good time to reflect on what you have. Review your pre-proposal document and ask:
- What am I attempting to accomplish, and why?
- Does this reflect everything I want to say?
- Is everything clear?
- Is there anything missing?
- Are there any gaps in my thinking?
- Is there support for all of my claims?
- Are any of the sections weak?
- Do the numbers make sense?
- Are the basics convincing?
This moment of reflection may lead you to rethink the Initiative or decide on a different direction. That’s okay.
Step 6: Finalize your draft. Assuming you’re satisfied with your answers to the above questions, you’re ready to complete your draft. Read through your draft as if you were an intended reader. Then make a second pass and start revising. This may involve rewriting for clarity and completeness, editing for length, and polishing for style and wording.
- Clarity and completeness. Make sure your proposal covers the “must answer” questions, such as:
- Why this project, and why now?
- What is the project’s structure?
- Who will implement the project?
- What will it cost?
- Can it/will it earn anything back? How much?
- What related experience do you bring to the table?
- Length. If you have over one printed page in your proposal, you have one option: start cutting. First things to go? Below are some suggestions:
- Redundant information
- Facts that are interesting but unnecessary to make your point
- Given your audience, anything that makes you appear naïve or less than well-informed
- Anything else that doesn’t belong
- Style. After you’ve finished cutting content, work on improving your style.
- Get rid of wordiness.
- Remove adjectives, adverbs, and unnecessary descriptive language.
- Remove unnecessary detail.
- Remove tautologies.
- Wording and format.
- Use a third-person perspective.
- Use positive language to express a positive attitude.
- Don’t oversell–using superlatives without support.
- Make sure your grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct. (This is one time when being a perfectionist is okay.)
- Use 10- to 12-point type, always black.
- Use 1-inch margins–as small as ½ inch if you must.
Make it personal. Consider carefully who you intend to present your proposal to; keep in mind that business is personal. Go the extra mile to research your potential reader(s) and any background related to them and your topic. Use what you’ve learned about your reader to shape your proposal to fit their personality, interests, and expected reactions.
Writing tips. You may spend more time on the research than the writing. That’s okay. It will help ensure that your idea and proposal are on the mark. Consider writing each section step-by-step, starting from the top and working your way down. That can help strengthen the logic of your argument. Riley says he takes about two hours to write the proposal once he’s completed the research.
Consider the competition. Recognize there may be factors that will work against your proposal, such as competing people, interests, or ideologies. Even if your proposal has no direct competitors, some may weigh in against it because your initiative will divert energy, time, or money from their interests.
Check your facts. In your research, focus on high-quality data. Before building your proposal, confirm the underlying facts. In your drafting, make sure your data is irrefutable.
Keep it updated. Your one-page proposal will need to be updated when there is a change in the project:
PRESENTING YOUR PROPOSAL
Putting It to work. If possible, never send your proposal without talking to your intended reader first. The personal connection of a one-on-one conversation is essential if you want the proposal to be read and taken seriously.
Make sure you know your proposal from top to bottom. Movie producer Robert Kosberg says there are four guiding principles to a good in-person pitch:
- Ensure your idea is pitch-worthy.
- Practice your pitch until you know it by heart.
- Demonstrate your passion.
- Visualize your success beforehand.
Kosberg has another mantra: “If you can’t explain your proposal in one sentence, it’s either a bad idea, or you don’t know it well enough.”
What happens if they say no? Getting a “no” isn’t necessarily a bad outcome. It could be what’s best for you and your reader. Getting a “maybe” can be far worse.
More about the book and where to buy it:
Amazon rating: 4.4 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 3.8 of 5 stars
Page count: 102
Publication date: Sept. 3, 2002 (print), Feb. 1, 2011 (eBook)
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