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One of the most effective tips I’ve come across for proposal writing

is… Write it, take the last line, put it at the start, rewrite it.

This one tip has helped me, and the teams I work with, dramatically reduce the time it takes to prepare a clear, compelling management summary or presentation. I learned this courtesy of my alma mater, PA Consulting.  They called it Top Down Thinking, a lift of the Pyramid Principle, a concept made famous by Barbara Minto.

The tip is simple:

1. Write what you want to say, in the order that you think of it.

2. Take the last line of what you have written, and then put it at the start of the piece.  This is your new introduction

3. Then, rewrite the rest of the piece so that it makes sense.

4. Remove anything that doesn’t fit with your new introduction (we often digress, myself most of all)

But why does this tip work?  And why, if its so simple, do most people find it completely counterintuitive? It works because of the difference between the way that we remember, and the way that we learn.

Lets start with learning first. We learn by encoding a piece of information, usually by linking it to an existing piece of information that we already know. For example, we start to learn about shapes by comparing them to our hand (or in the case of spiders and other creepy crawlies, because the shapes are programmed by natural selection into our brains).  Then, we link those shapes to sounds and colours.  My young children have great fun with shape sorters and colour matching games for this exact reason.  Then we group these sounds, shapes, and colours into abstract concepts and equivalence classes (for example, there are lots of different types of dog, but we have mentally grouped them into a single common class, linked by common memories).

When we remember things, we go in the opposite direction.  We start with the concept or thing, and then remember the preceding or linked memories, until we reach our destination (if you need a bit more empirical stuff about this, then look up research on equivalence classes or the work of Noam Chomsky, both great courses of study for the chronic insomniac).

OK, get with the programme, Kelvin.  I know what you’re thinking.  What, what what is your point?

The point is this – we learn things in the exact opposite sequence from that which we recall them. The act of writing is an act of recall.  We remember the story that we have made up in our mind, linking idea 1 to idea 2 to idea 3 to your final idea, which is usually something like “you should choose our solution”. But the act of reading, or hearing a pitch, is an act of learning.  The customer needs to learn “you should choose our solution because….”; and then be taken on the journey from idea 1 to idea 2 to idea 3.

So, a fair bit of theory, but wrapped up in it is a habit that is really simple. Write it. Take the last line. Put it at the start. Rewrite it.