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This Proposal Writing Trick Can Help Your Consulting Firm Close More Projects

Pop a sun-warmed, fresh-off-the-tree olive into your mouth and you’ll spit it out after one bite. Blech! But if you process your olive with brine and NaOH (a.k.a., lye) for even a short time, the result can be sublime. You can achieve a similar transformation when you soak your consulting firm’s proposals in “PTF.”Your proposals have to overcome a few tough challenges before they’re signed and your consulting firm celebrates a win. Chief among those challenges is an unfair evaluation:

  • On one side, your client weighs the risk that he could look bad and his certain loss of money (your fees).
  • On the other side, your client considers a possible benefit for someone else: his future self.

The danger of your consulting prospects overweighting the present and over-discounting the future is particularly high if you write your proposals in English.

Really? The English language is making it harder for your consulting firm to close deals? Yes.There’s some interesting research to consider and, fortunately, that research also points to an ingredient that will yield tastier consulting proposals: PTF (If you write your proposals in Finnish or Mandarin, PTF is added automatically.)

Let’s start with three bits of scholarship:

First: in the 1930s, a fire-prevention engineer named Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that the structure of the language we use affects how we think. (Whorf also happened to be a linguist, like every other fire-prevention engineer I’ve researched from the 1930s.)

Second: Recent work on Whorf’s idea has connected our language structure to our actions. The research suggests that people who speak languages without strongly distinct future tenses are more likely to invest in activities that benefit them over the long term.Third: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who visualize a positive statement in the future are more likely adopt beneficial actions than those who visualize that positive statement in the present.

Let’s mix those three ideas into a brine that will reduce the bitter taste of consulting proposals and make them more appetizing to your prospects.

The ingredient that will help is PTF, or Present Tense Future.

Write key sections of your proposal—the desired outcomes, the value and the recommended approach—in the present tense set at a future time.

A few examples will probably help:

Proposal Section Typical Example PTF Rewrite
Desired Outcomes (i.e., Objectives) BigCo would like to have a lower cost of cocoa production At the end of this initiative, BigCo’s cost of cocoa production has dropped significantly.
Value Successful implementation will demonstrate the value of your division to the executive team. Upon completion of our work together, the executive team is fully aware of your division’s contributions.
Approach During our first phase we will interview 20 of your customers. In phase one we’re interviewing 20 of your customers.


By using language that deemphasizes the separation between now and later, you prevent your consulting prospect from disassociating himself from the future reward.

Your client could feel bad that all your present tense wonderfulness doesn’t reflect his reality. But, by setting it in the future, you remove that threat.

To make this practical, I recommend you draft your proposals the way you always have, then soak them in a PTF bath to make them sweet, delectable, and irresistible to your consulting firm’s clients

Can you think of other instances where it would be helpful to apply PTF to your communication with consulting prospects and clients?

  1. Patty Hardee
    December 19, 2018 at 6:01 am Reply

    In your examples, PTF also seems to simplify the usual proposal language. Your PTF rewrites are in plain English and in active, not passive voice. Good benefits for improving one’s writing all on their own.

    • David A. Fields
      December 19, 2018 at 6:47 am Reply

      Good observation, Patty. As heady, cerebral, well-educated consultants, we can sometimes default to verbose, stilted, professorial language. That rarely helps a proposal.

      If you want to feel self-important, end your proposal with, “Affixing your imprimatur at the location indicated below will allow us to proceed.” If you want to close a deal, try this: “Sign here.”

      Thanks for getting the conversation started, Patty.

  2. Terry
    December 19, 2018 at 6:55 am Reply

    Wow, David. Your articles certainly put my brain on its side. This is really awesome yet challenging for me as a writer since grammatically it isn’t how I write future scenes because, yes, I AM writing it in the present. However, it READS powerfully and your examples demonstrate that mental shift clearly. The way I will interpret this to help myself transition my writing (even marketing writing can benefit from your “PTF” brine) is to mentally create a context of “when you are in this place in time, you will have experiencED—not WILL experience—X.” Great stuff, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • David A. Fields
      December 19, 2018 at 7:07 am Reply

      Sometimes knowing the rules gets in our way! The “proper” way of communicating may not be the most compelling. Robert Kiyosaki penned one of my favorite lines: The cover of my book doesn’t say Best-Writing Author, it says Best-Selling Author.

      Definitely keep me up to date with your experience and results, Terry.

  3. Steve
    December 19, 2018 at 8:01 am Reply

    Hi David,

    Interesting point. It reminds me of some advice I once heard from a storyteller: tell stories in the present tense. Even when we begin with “Once upon a time…” as the narrative gets going, good storytellers will transition into the present tense (set in the past or future) in order to create the illusion that the action is happening now and draw in the listener (or reader). After reading your article, I realized that when I write case studies, I’m doing exactly that.


    • David A. Fields
      December 19, 2018 at 8:29 am Reply

      Your proposals are stories meant to draw in the reader, engage them, and lead them to the point where they’ll pay handsomely for the sequel: your consulting work.

      I’m glad you highlighted that idea, Steve. It’s important to remember.

  4. John
    December 19, 2018 at 11:03 am Reply

    Great advice; thank you David!

    • David A. Fields
      December 19, 2018 at 2:11 pm Reply

      You’re quite welcome, John. Let me know how you fare with the PTF approach in your proposals.

  5. Darrel Raynor
    December 19, 2018 at 12:15 pm Reply

    Really liked the reminder based in research. Kudos.

    • David A. Fields
      December 19, 2018 at 2:14 pm Reply

      There’s nothing wrong with leading your clients based on experience, observation and intuition. However, a pinch of scholarly research here and there makes the suggestion soup taste better. (Plus, in this case the research was amazingly interesting.)

      I’m glad the format works for you, Darrel, and appreciate the feedback.

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