Proposal Cover Letters and Executive Summaries

Cover letters, or executive summaries (which what I’m about to say also applies to), are one of the most important pieces of a proposal.

99% of the cover letters I’ve seen during my years are cr* p. The problem stems from common misconceptions about the cover letter’s place in the current proposal environment.

Lets look at three misconceptions that can lead to epic cover letter failure.

Misconception # 1: People Want To Read Your Cover Letter

Recently, I was at a pre-bid meeting. The Director of Construction made it plain.

“Do not provide a cover letter in your proposal. It’s not going to persuade us. So, do not waste your time.”.

Exactly why would he state that?

He said that due to the fact that he’s seen hundreds, if not thousands, of cover letters and they all said virtually nothing. There was nothing useful in those cover letters. Naturally, when he sees a cover letter, we have trained his brain to skip over it.

You are insane if you think someone is likely to read your cover letter just because its there.

Instead, you need to give folks a reason to read your cover letter. You need to get their attention and then create a “slippery slope” that will keep them reading.

You have to start off by creating a “knowledge gap.” You create a knowledge gap by highlighting a gap between what the reader knows and what the reader wants to know. Let’s say you are an architecture firm proposing to a client that knows you pretty well. You could use, “3 Things You Might Not Know About ABC Architects.”.

Those three things better be something they don’t know and also highlight what they would be missing out on if they hire a different firm for this project.

Obviously, this is an approach I’ve also used quite successfully in proposals to clients all over the country.

Misconception # 2: You Can Replicate Someone Else’s Cover Letter.

People often get frustrated when they ask me for an example of a great cover letter for them to use. Because I tell them such a thing does not exist.

An exceptional cover letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs is not going to be an awesome cover letter to the University of California Health System.

Each cover letter has to speak to the specific client and project. That means, gasp, each cover letter will have to be written from scratch. There is no way around it.

Well, actually there is. Write a terrible cover letter they will simply skip over. That won’t help you win.

Misconception # 3: Throw Everything At Them and See Exactly What Sticks

This mistaken belief leads to lengthy cover letters. Here’s the problem.

If you had been given a three-page letter in 1973, the probability that you would have read through all three pages would have been extremely high.

But we inhabit a different world. When was the last time you read, word for word, a three-page letter?

Even better yet, when was the last time you even received a three-page letter?

I’m saddened to say that if my own grandmother sent me a three-page letter, she’d be pressing her luck. I couldn’t guarantee I’d read through ever word.

Busy individuals simply do not read long cover letters. Just about anything longer than a page is pushing it.

Two-page cover letters are sometimes inevitable. However three-page cover letters are simply always avoidable.

Every word must earn its place on the cover letter. If it doesn’t speak specifically to this client, it simply hasn’t earned its way onto the page. As much as this pains you, leave it out.

Don’t let these misconceptions plague your cover letters. Follow my advice and you’ll get an opportunity to make a powerful pitch to your clients.